CBN ARCHIVE - SEPTEMBER '97:
South Africa - New life for local space programme
OUTH AFRICA's mothballed R5b space programme may get a new lease on life in a deal under negotiation by Armscor's commercial engineering arm, Denel. Denel have been trying to revive the curtailed space program since 1994 by courting international partners. They say they are now in the closing stage of a joint venture deal with a major international satellite group who want to use Denel's aerospace facility, Houwteq, just outside Cape Town. After a series of visits by several interested potential partners, Houwteq manager, Ian Farr, is hopeful that the deal will be finalised by the end of the year. "Negotiations are well advanced - but it may still be early days', warns Farr. The joint venture deal would mean Houwteq might become the launch arm of its satellite provision partner in the business ofputting in place the low orbit space infrastructure for the global Internet and cellular network. Over the next decade it is expected that half of all satellite launches will be devoted to that network, and Houwteq's Overberg range is in a unique position to serve that market both in terms of its geographical position and the available infrastructure. Houwteq's main asset is the satellite launch infrastructure near Bredasdorp, a 600 ha site that includes an airstrip capable of landing 747 sized jets, a rocket launch pad and all the infrastructure necessary to test and assemble launch vehicles. Denel developed and built four rockets, launching three from the Overberg range, in the late 1980s as part of its Greenstatorbital management system (for applications like vehicletracking, regional planning etc). The range was also used for aerospace and system testing for British, Swedish and Czech programmes. Beyond aerospace applications, aviation control and weapon system testing eventually meant Houwteq's complement grew to 500 in the early 1990s. In the 1980s some R5b was spent on setting up the Overberg facility. Beyond the actual rocket launch platform there are tracking stations, thermal vacuum chambers to simulate space conditions for testing equipment, huge insulated hangars for dry testing rockets at noise levels beyond human tolerance, to banks of computers and all the science fiction paraphernalia needed for what Farr calls "the integration of low orbit satellite launches". It was a facility that blossomed under sanctions then, with the end of sanctions, launch vehicles could be bought at a fraction of the cost developing (our own) rockets from scratch. In 1992 military funding was withdrawn, and the following year funding for Greenstat's commercial applications was also stopped. For the last few years Houwteq has been on hold while it sought an international partner. From 500 the staff complement was reduced to 28, most of them security staff for the deserted range and state-of-the-art launch infrastructure. The Overberg facility is capable of supporting up to 10 launches a year, and even one or two a year might bring in R500m "and create 100 to 200 hi-tech jobs in the initial phase," claims Farr. There would also be another 20 50 off site outside jobs, and perhaps renewed opportunities for those companies who previously contributed to range operations. Farr expects that the joint venture would fly in the rocket and satellite components to the site, which would then be tested and prepared for the launch. Rather than hope the prospect for Houwteq's new lease of life is based on the huge growth in the low orbiting mobilecommunications satellite market. "Projects like Globalstar, Iridium and Teledesic are going to have a major impact. They will put a huge strain on global launch and satellite integration capacity and as our facilities are world standard they are ideally situated for projects like these," says Farr.