Space Race May Go Down Under

Business group plans first commercial rocket-launching facility in the Southern Hemisphere

CROCODILES outnumber the people. Dugongs - sea cows - and green sea turtles swim in the crystal clear waters offshore. And Aborigines have claimed the land as their own. Despite these obstacles, a group of businessmen plans to move ahead with a commercial rocket-launching facility on the Cape York Peninsula in northern Queensland. If the $300-million launch site, the Cape York Space Agency, is built, the Australian group will join China, the Soviet Union, France, and the United States in the competition for space business.

The Australians recently received a boost in their efforts when President Bush authorized the United States State Department to approve US corporate participation in the Cape York project. United Technologies USBI Company, located in Huntsville, Ala., recently became the first American company to participate and will serve as technology manager.

US companies need federal approval because the Cape York facility will use Soviet Zenit rockets to launch satellites. There will be Soviet technicians walking around sensitive US technology.

``Until we got the support of the US government, we could only discuss the project. Now we can demonstrate the reality of the project,'' says Malcolm Edwards, managing director of Essington Limited, the major partner in the project. Essington, a Sydney-based real-estate developer, wants to get foreign investors for the project. He says they expect to have it operational in late 1995.

To sell the economics of the project, Mr. Edwards stress the geographical advantage of Cape York. At a latitude of 12 degrees south, it is the closest launch facility to the equator. This will save fuel for launching satellites into equatorial orbits. The Cape York Space Agency plans to charge about $80 million per launch. This is about $30 million less than Martin Marietta Corporation recently charged to launch a satellite in the United States.

The Cape York area also has a very small population, which means the construction will not disrupt any urban centers. And the Queensland government says it supports the project if it meets environmental standards and addresses Aboriginal concerns.

The Australians hope to sell launches to companies frustrated by the delays in the US shuttle program and tight security at Cape Canaveral, Fla. ``It can be difficult to have access because of the military launches,'' explains Bruce Middleton, executive director of the Australian Space Office, a government department.

Still, the Australians will be up against some tough competitors. At a conference on space development recently, an economist pointed out that the market for commercial launches is expected to be 20 launches per year for the next 10 years. The Cape York development is aiming to launch five satellites per year, or 20 percent of the total.

``Where does Cape York expect to get those customers?'' asked the economist. Stephen Williams of Essington replied that the Australians hope to capture some market share from the French Arianespace, which currently has 60 percent of the commercial launches.

EVEN if the economics work out, Essington still has to get a clean environmental-impact statement. This is expected to take at least 15 months. ``It is not as if we are building on a fragile coastline or a rain forest,'' Mr. Williams says.

But Doug Yuille, a campaign official in the Brisbane office of the Wilderness Society, says there are 30 high-priority species on the Cape York peninsula. ``It is the most threatened bio-geographic zone in Australia,'' he maintains.

In addition, the rockets will be launched over part of the Great Barrier Reef, which is a national park. In that part of the reef there are dugongs, which have low resistance to toxins, and green sea turtles, which are an endangered species.

The developers maintain they will try to keep the damage to a minimum. To avoid ripping up the land around the cape, the agency has no plans to build any new roads into the area. Instead, it plans to build an airport capable of handling Boeing 747s. Everything else will be shipped in by barge. Essington officials envision a town of 700 to support the launch site.

More difficult will be lining up support from the local Aboriginal community. In the past, the Aborigines have opposed the space development. Last month, Aboriginal activists held a conference on the development to firm up their support. Mr. Yuille says the Aborigines are forming an alliance with the Australian green movement. ``This is the big one, once you open the space port there will be all kinds of development,'' Yuille says.

The activists went out to the proposed launch site and planted an Aboriginal flag. ``This is a symbol to the government that we are the rightful owners of the land,'' says Gordon Pablo, an activist.

Essington officials acknowledge that they will need the involvement of the Aborigines to make the project work.

The Cape York facility will not be Australia's first involvement with space. In 1957, Australian scientists confirmed that the Soviet Union had launched Sputnik. The British used Australian ranges to test rockets after World War II. And in 1968 the Australian government launched its own satellite from the Woomera, South Australia range.

The Australian government is also active in space exploration using radiotelescopes that allow the imaging of galaxies and quasars. In addition, Australia has tracking and data-relay facilities in the outback, which are used by the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration but mainly manned by Australians.

If Cape York gets off the ground, it will be the first commercial launch facility in Australia and the Southern Hemisphere.

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