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Race for Space Begins to Cool Off Down Under

THE race to build the first equatorial space-launch site in the Pacific continues, but the competition is thinning. Last week, one of the two Australian-led consortia bowed out. The Australian Space Group (United States and Australian companies: Martin Marietta Corporation, Aussat, BHP, Bond Corporation, Comalco) said its research shows the Cape York spaceport is not a viable venture.

But ASG's rival, the Cape York Space Agency, insists the venture can turn a profit. And CYSA has harnessed a remarkable combination of players from the Soviet Union, Japan, the US, and Australia. The Brisbane-based CYSA announced last week that it has an exclusive worldwide rights agreement with the Soviet Union's space agency, Glavkosmos, to use Soviet-built Zenit rockets to launch commercial satellites into geostationary orbit.

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``The only significant difference between us and ASG is they were unable to get an economic launch vehicle. The catalyst for our venture is this agreement,'' says Malcolm Edwards, chief executive of Sydney-based Essington Ltd., the CYSA holding company.

CYSA member nations are keen to push ahead because of the geographical advantages the Cape York site offers over existing launch sites. The spin of Earth is so strong close to the equator that it hurls objects into space. This means heavier payloads with lower fuel costs are possible - important considerations for Japan and the Soviet Union, which have ambitious space programs.

Currently, CYSA envisions a $350 million privately funded launch facility located on the Cape York peninsula in Northeast Australia. Helping the 70-odd Australia companies in CYSA plan the project will be a Japanese consortium of nine companies (headed by Shimuzi Corporation) and the US conglomerate, United Technologies Corporation.

A United Technologies spokesman says the firm has signed no agreements yet for either the development or operation of the spaceport. But CYSA officials say plans call for United Technologies to manage the launch site. CYSA expects the Australian, US, and Japanese participants to each take one-third equity stakes in the venture. But beyond tax concessions and basic infrastructure funding, no public dollars are being sought.

Government support appears likely. But the Cape York project still faces at least three high hurdles. First, US approval for sending satellites up on Soviet launch vehicles appears unlikely at this time. Under the COCOM Agreement, followed by most Western nations, the transfer of technology of military value to communist nations is restricted. Almost every satellite launched would fall under COCOM guidelines.

It took tremendous lobbying in the US Congress to gain approval for the Australian satellite maker, Aussat, to put satellites on China's Long March rockets this year. Now that decision is in question since the turmoil in China.

Bruce Middleton, director of the Australian Space Office, will travel to Washington next month to discuss the spaceport with the US State Department and industry representatives.

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The second hurdle is that while there is demand now for launch facilities, some forecasters project it will be satisfied in five years time, just when Cape York is ready to launch. CYSA disagrees with such projections.

Third, environmentalists and Aborigines are yet to be consulted and are beginning to voice concerns about the impact of spaceport development. Environmental objections are eroding the prospects for a spaceport in Hawaii, a key competitor to CYSA. As attention focuses on Australia, spaceports once considered for Indonesia and Kiribati look less viable.

Other factors favoring the Cape York site include weather that is good year 'round, Australia's political stability, and available technical skills to make the project a ``go.''

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