By Damien Lawson
Peace activists' fears have been confirmed by a leaked submission outlining plans to launch rockets from the Woomera Prohibited Area in South Australia.
The submission, by the state government on behalf of the aerospace consortium Southern Launch Service (SLS), requests a federal government subsidy of $10 million and a commitment to buy the first two launches.
The government funding needed to get the project off the ground is indicative of the viability of such projects — the Cape York Spaceport is still unable to find adequate financial backers — in a world which has a host of launch facilities already running and more being developed.
More importantly, the redevelopment of the Woomera Rocket Range poses grave threats to the already damaged environment of South Australia's north-west and would be a further hurdle in Aboriginal struggles for land rights in the area. The project is also heavily implicated in the global strategies of military planners and the corporate arms traders.
SLS is a consortium of aerospace companies which have a long history in the arms trade: British Aerospace, maker of jet fighters and other military aircraft; Hawker de Havilland, responsible for the upgrade of Australian helicopters for use on Bougainville; Auspace. The consortium has expressed interest in bringing Australian Defence Industries, CSA, the Australian Submarine Corporation and other electronics and aerospace companies in on the project.
Transfield, builder of the Australia's new ANZAC frigates, was the original backer of a previous consortium, Australian Launch Vehicles. Transfield pulled out when it failed to win the contract for launching Motorola's Iridium satellites.
The present consortium believes there is a market for launch and recovery services for what it calls "lightsats": small, usually communications satellites between 500 and 800 kg in weight. SLS claims it could receive contracts for around eight launches per year.
The problem is the present glut on the world launch market. The US, Europe, Russia, China and India all have the ability to launch satellites. The US and China in particular have a developed and highly subsidised space industry. Brazil, Canada and Japan are developing commercially oriented space industries.
The executive director of the Australian Space Office, Dr Bruce Middleton, summed up the quandary when he said there is "no doubt there would be more use of satellites if there was a launch service in Australia. The problem is, who is going to put up the money?" Clearly, in the eyes of the space industry it should be the government, and ultimately the public.
More alarming even than the corporate clawing at the public purse is the second aspect of the SLS proposal: recovery services.
, SLS wants to use the vast area of the Woomera Prohibited Area as a catchment zone for the world's space junk. SLS would act as a garbage collector, providing the tracking and recovery services needed to collect the information from and the carcasses of "re-entry vehicles". This poses a further threat to the fragile desert area, already badly damaged after decades of atomic testing, missile launches and use by the Australian, US and British military.
The Kokotha people, the traditional custodians of the area, are renewing their struggle for land rights and compensation. The Department of Defence, which controls Woomera Prohibited Area, almost the size of Victoria, continues to bar them from their sacred sites and traditional land.
The Kokotha People's Committee has asked for the land to be returned to their custodianship and resources for the clean-up and regeneration to be provided. There has been no consultation by SLS or the state and federal governments with the Kokotha about this latest proposal.
The space industry is highly integrated with the arms industry and the military. Over 80% of satellites launched are military-related. Half of the NASA space shuttle missions involve military projects.
Australia's minor space industry is no different. Apart from being highly integrated with the global aerospace industry, it also has close institutional connection with the Australian military. SLS has proposed that much of
the research and development associated with the project be conducted at the SA Technology Park, the Multi-Function Polis (MFP) and the Defence Science and Technology Organisation, Salisbury area.
Much of the work in these areas involves major multinational arms companies or military think-tanks. SLS knows the Department of Defence has plans for an Australian military satellite.
A growing network of people concerned about Australia's involvement in the space industry and who are opposed to the Woomera Rocket Range needs your help. For more information, contact Campaign Against Militarism (03) 419 5937.