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Space gazing; sizing up Alaska's satellite launch potential.


Sizing Up Alaska's Satellite Launch Potential

Tucked in a steep valley 30 winding miles from Fairbanks lies a 5,200-acre research station. There, for the past two decades, scientists have launched rockets into the skies to study the atmosphere and the aurora borealis.

Trekking to the station from the University of Alaska Fairbanks Geophysical Institute in the early days, scientists working in the station's relative isolation dubbed it the Poker Flat Research Range. They borrowed the name from a short story by Bret Harte, "The Outcasts of Poker Flat," about a group of ne'er-do-wells thrown out of a mining camp into a blinding blizzard.

Since then, more than 200 scientific experiments have been launched from rockets at Poker Flat. But the range's remote location on the Steese Highway has helped it maintain the somewhat forsaken character for which it was named.

Those days could be coming to an end. The evolving technology that is creating "micro-satellites" that are smaller, lighter and less expensive than their larger predecessors has led representatives from the state, university and industry to eye the range as a potential site for commercial launches into polar orbit.

"I think this is an incomparable opportunity," says Glenn Olds, commissioner of the state Department of Commerce and Economic Development. "I think the 21st century will be dominated by the domestication and commercialization of space, and I think Alaska has a chance to be a premier actor on that stage."

Satellites of an earlier era weighed 5,000 pounds or more, cost $200 million to build and required huge rockets to push them into space. The new micro-satellites weigh less than 500 pounds, are 10 times cheaper to build and can be launched with 50,000-pound rockets for less than $5 million.

With uses ranging from communications to oil exploration, the commercial space market is the world's fastest growing new industry, says Peter Diamandis, president of MicroSat Launch Systems Inc., a Virginia-based aerospace company. He notes 17 micro-satellites were launched into orbit last year.

Nationally, revenues from the commercial space industry grew from $2.8 billion in 1989 to $3.6 billion last year, according to "Space Business Indicators" published by the U.S. Department of Commerce in June 1990.

Launching into polar orbit requires a larger pad than is currently available at Poker Flat. But once equipped with such a pad, Poker Flat's geographic location and civilian ownership could put it in a unique position to cash in on the burgeoning industry.

MicroSat's managers hope their company will be at the forefront of the micro-satellite industry, providing launch services for academic, corporate and government customers. They are seriously considering using Poker Flat as the company's launch site.

Representatives from the company toured Poker Flat twice during April and May, and liked what they saw, according to Diamandis. "The company remains very interested in launching out of Poker Flat," he says.

Although MicroSat has not committed to using the site and its managers point out that the firm's business is being pursued by other states, they are serious enough about Poker Flat to have filed April 29 for MicroSat to become an Alaskan corporation.

Diamandis says Poker Flat, which is owned and operated by the UAF Geophysical Institute, offers the chance to work with university scientists, the prospect for low-cost operations, and a unique geographic location. In turn, MicroSat could boost Fairbanks' economy.

"The commercial launch operations from Poker Flat would provide significant numbers of local job opportunities," Diamandis says. "In addition, I expect that once launch operations ensue, other commercial space companies might bring their operations to the region as well."

Indeed, Jack Dillard, the range manager for Poker Flat, says six other companies have contacted him about using the range. The most recent company to inquire is Space Data, based in Chandler, Ariz. A division of Orbital Sciences Corp. of Fairfax, Va., Space Data has launched dozens of suborbital rockets from Poker Flat and is launching an orbital rocket in the future.

Scott Webster, president of the firm, says Space Data is developing a three-stage, 40,000-pound solid-rocket launch vehicle similar to one already in use called Pegasus. According to Webster, the rocket could generate between $200,000 and $300,000 per launch in local contracted help and range fees. "We could probably be ready to go from Poker in a year and a half's time to design that configuration and launch it," he says.

According to Dillard, who was senior engineer at Martin Marietta and vice president of engineers at Dee Howard Co. before coming to Poker Flat, the range is so attractive because it is the only civilian rocket range in the United States. As such, it has fewer regulations and would be less expensive than federal sites such as Cape Canaveral in Florida and Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. And the vast, largely unpopulated area that stretches to the north of Fairbanks makes it ideal for launches, he says.

Another draw is a massive upgrade under way, funded by the federal government. The Geophysical Institute owns and operates the range, but it runs on contracts with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and other federal agencies.

Over the past two years, U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens has secured $12.5 million to bring the range up to par with other Department of Defense and NASA installations around the world. The money is the first stage of a three-phase upgrade that will total $30 million, says Jane Robbins, Stevens' press secretary. The funding will be used to upgrade road, water, optic and communication systems.

Another $3.5 million would be needed to build a launch pad to handle rockets capable of reaching the 17,500 miles per hour needed to attain polar orbit. Other movements are afoot to help that effort. In May, the state House unanimously passed a bill sponsored by Rep. Tom Moyer (D-Fairbanks) creating the Alaska Aerospace Development Corp.

The measure was passed by the Senate on its last day in session and Gov. Walter Hickel was expected to sign the bill into law. The goal of the university-affiliated corporation, or "spaceport authority," is to attract business to the state and to preserve the education and research functions of the range.

According to Diamandis, establishment of such an authority is crucial before MicroSat will select Alaska. He says it provides the legal and regulatory infrastructure for commercial companies to use what up until now has been an exclusively research-oriented range.

"It also provides a mechanism for assuring that the commercial activities don't interfere with the range activities, which are the primary goal of the facility. That's very important," Diamandis says.

The spaceport idea even got a plug from astronaut Gene Cernan, a director and investor in MicroSat. Cernan, who flew on three separate space missions during 13 years with NASA, toured Poker Flat in May and spoke to the state House Finance Committee when it was considering the bill.

The development corporation would be governed by a nine-member board of four university officials, two state officials, a public member, an aerospace expert and a representative of a commercial satellite company. It would oversee a revolving fund that would help finance space commercialization efforts, receive federal money and issue bonds to help finance space projects and improvement.

But without any improvements at all, Dillard says, Poker Flat already can provide launch services for companies seeking gravity-free environments -- firms developing pharmaceuticals, for example. He notes one major challenge in Alaska's efforts to develop a commercial space industry: During a recent visit to Space Expo '91 in Washington, D.C., Dillard discovered very few people Outside realize the university has a rocket range.

That's where the state can help, commerce commissioner Olds says. he sees the state bringing investors together with the firms that take the lead on launch projects.

To that end, Olds toured Poker Flat in early May with representatives from MicroSat and an investment firm called Stevens and Co. out of Little Rock, Ark. He says a deal is in the works and the first launch could occur by 1993.

That could have a ripple effect on the Fairbanks economy, Dillard says. Currently, the range launches 8 to 12 experimental sounding rockets a year. Although parts and support equipment are acquired from Outside, Dillard feels that with any increase in launches, range users would prefer to buy services locally.

"When we're launching on a fairly heavy schedule, we'll have to have the capability locally to take care of servicing all aspects of the range," Dillard says. That, in turn, would require other enterprises, such as mechanics, office supplies, data analysis, and rocket transport.

"We could overtax our present staff at the Geophysical Institute in the near future if we don't give serious thought to support infrastructure," Dillard adds.

Fairbanks' Moyer agrees: "I think it does more than just put us on the international aerospace map. It makes us a front leader in an emerging industry, sure. But it also can create jobs and, just as importantly, diversify our economy."

According to Moyer, MicroSat alone expects to launch 7 to 20 rockets a year from Poker Flat, paying more than $150,000 per launch in user fees and creating up to 60 new jobs. It is potential like that that has Olds seeing stars.

"I think it's unlimited," the commerce commissioner says. "Because we already have a launching range in place, because the university and institute have had a long and distinguished history, we ought to lead the nation. I expect us to do so. We're talking about a multibillion dollar business for the 21st century.

PHOTO : A Nike-Orion rocket with a scientific payload for the University of Alaska Fairbanks' Geophysical Institute and the University of Houston was launched from Poker Flat Research Range on Feb. 26.
COPYRIGHT 1991 Alaska Business Publishing Company, Inc.
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Title Annotation:satellite launching facilities in Alaska
Author:Whitaker, Wilda
Publication:Alaska Business Monthly
Date:Jul 1, 1991
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