Back in 1986, then Queensland premier Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen announced plans for a commercial space launch facility on Cape York, which were promptly dismissed as pie in the sky and yet another white elephant project.
Had it proceeded, Australia’s space ambitions might now be well advanced and the country reaping the vast benefits of the global space renaissance.
More than three decades after Sir Joh announced his vision, the recent Queensland government committee inquiry into developing the state’s space industry called for development of siting options for a launch facility in regional Queensland.
In its report, the committee said it considered Queensland’s geographic conditions to be an advantage when considering the development of a launch site.
It acknowledged evidence from industry that a launch site would benefit multiple industries along the space supply chain.
“In particular, the committee notes that Queensland has a number of companies that develop launch vehicles and that a launch site would encourage these companies to remain in Queensland and potentially expand as the industry develops,” it said.
Two of those companies, Gilmour Space Technologies and Black Sky Aerospace, have already conducted trial rocket launches.
When it comes to launches into space, Queensland’s principal advantage is its geography.
As the Earth spins in an easterly direction, the closer a launch site is to the equator, the greater the rocket’s speed. That translates into less fuel to reach orbit and heavier payloads.
Also, there is lots of space downrange and rockets departing north Queensland do not overfly the Australian mainland or any neighbouring nations.
That was well known to scientists and in 1986. Stan Schaetzel from defence and aviation company Hawker De Havilland floated the idea of a rocket launch facility on Cape York to the Queensland government.
Sir Joh, ever enthusiastic for grand infrastructure projects, was taken by the idea, declaring it “Queensland’s single most important development in the history of Australia”.
There was derision from some quarters, including from the Labor government in Canberra. Undeterred, Sir Joh proceeded, commissioning feasibility studies from among others the Institute of Engineers.
One commentator subsequently noted that what surprised many was that these studies turned up many good arguments for the proposal and few against.
There appear to be a number of reasons for cynicism.
What was proposed was a commercial facility, but at that time accessing space was the sole preserve of national governments, equipped with vast resources and extensive expensive infrastructure, such as Cape Canaveral.
Sir Joh’s advocacy actually may not have helped. As Queensland’s longest serving premier, he was approaching the end of his time, and the end when it came, with his resignation on 1 December 1987, wasn’t pretty.
During a visit to Canberra in October 1987, Sir Joh suggested to then Labor defence minister Kim Beazley that the spaceport could be incorporated into plans for a new RAAF base on Cape York.
Was the Labor government ever going to run with a scheme backed by its arch nemesis, the man who more than most others had contributed to the fall of the Whitlam government and who fancied himself as Australia’s prime minister? No, it wasn’t.
The base is now RAAF Scherger, officially opened in 1998 and one of the RAAF’s three bare bases, one in Queensland and two in Western Australia. It could well have incorporated a space launch facility, which would have given the Commonwealth an early stake in the space business.
Yet as the plan developed, many of the objections faded away. The state’s new Labor government maintained its support, as did Canberra.
Two rival consortiums developed proposals.
The Australian Spaceport Group, backed by Comalco, favoured a site near Weipa on the western side of Cape York but withdrew from the contest.
The Cape York Space Agency, a consortium of companies including Mayne Nickless, Boral, the Commonwealth Bank, Price Waterhouse, TNT, Brambles and the Japanese Shimuzu Corporation, was chosen as the development co-ordinator for a facility at Temple Bay, on the eastern side of the Cape.
What was proposed was a $500 million facility with launch infrastructure on a 200,000 hectare site, a port and tourist facilities, with a vision of up to 20 launches a year using Russian rockets.
However, the project ran into immediate conflict with Cape York traditional land owners, who fought their case all the way to the High Court. In 1992, the court ruled in their favour and the plan ground to a halt.
However, by that stage the problems were increasingly financial, with the anticipated private sector funding simply not eventuating. The Queensland government only ever intended to put up $500,000 of its own money towards the project.
The project speedily gained the reputation of being a potential white elephant.
It even featured in a 1992 book titled A Herd of White Elephants, which warned that without careful and critical assessment, Australia could end up with something akin to the US$3.5 billion west coast military spaceport, which was mothballed on completion.
“That the project has not progressed further in the past four years is largely due to the fact that those consortiums have either judged the project to be commercially unviable or that they have not been able to obtain significant support from Canberra,” it said.
More than three decades on and given Australia’s energised interest in space, this looks like a lost opportunity.
Knowing what we know now, more sensitive negotiations with land owners, emphasising consultation, employment opportunities and respect for the area’s unique environment, might have produced a better outcome.
But when it comes to white elephants, the criticism of the Cape York has some merit. Clearly the proponents of a Cape York launch facility had a vision of what a $500 million space base looked like and that could only have been Cape Canaveral.
That was created following World War II and developed during the Cold War to compete with the USSR in the space race, eventually sending man to the moon atop enormous Saturn V rockets.
Is Australia ever likely to want to launch such rockets? Most likely not, as current launch proposals aim to put small satellites into near-Earth orbits atop appropriate launch vehicles.
The success of Rocket Lab’s New Zealand launch site on the Mahia Peninsula shows that a spaceport need not be of Cape Canaveral proportions.
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