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Today, Woomera. Tomorrow. … ?
by Richard Tonkin
How do you feel about the idea that the new work at Spaceport Woomera isn't really about the conquest of space, but actually the control of other nations? What if South Australia is set to become a base from which the US could deploy troops to anywhere in the world? It may sound a little like the plot for Capricorn One, but for one man such an idea is far from impossible to achieve. He's tried something similar before and failed. His name is Richard Cheney.
The first time I went to Woomera, on behalf of the South Australian Outback Areas Cultural Development Trust, was to play at a folk concert organised by a US Air Force bloke with a few buttons on his shoulder . Unfortunately what "Thad" had going against him was Darts Night, a regular and sacred local event. As missiles struck the walls of every bar in town, we played jigs and reels to five people in the otherwise empty theatre.The next day I had the opportunity to walk inside a Starlifter before it took off. I don't know if you've seen one of the things but it's a hulking plane that can take off on a very short runway. "Thad," explained how these were what ferried stuff between the Aussie Outback and the US of A. No doubt such planes will be comparatively like a horse and buggy when compared to the next generation of hypersonic planes. New aircraft are anticipated to make the trip from Washington to Australia in two hours !
Returning to the town of space odysseys in 2001, to me it seemed pretty well empty. Even the transportable homes that had housed so many in the area's more active days had long been sold, and the empty lanes on which these used to dwell made you feel that the town's history was completed.
The atomically minded Brits were ghosts, as were the missile launching Yanks and their dart-throwing Australian support personnel. It looked like a sorry end to a significant history. It was sad to me, especially considering how globally important the place had once been considered.
The science fiction writer Arthur C Clarke, who also worked out the concept of placing satellites in geosynchronous orbit, had figured that Britain would be the greatest superpower of the world because of it's control of the Australian rocket range. Clarke reasoned that whoever controlled the best spaceport in the world would control space, and by default achieve planetary supremacy on Earth.
Now, as the possible replacements for the space shuttle are about to be trialled at Spaceport Woomera, I wonder what's about to happen in our outback, if it's not already. President Bush's announcement of efforts to travel to Mars on January 14 2004 included a mandate that the space shuttles were to be grounded after the assembly of the international space station. . A 2004 US Senate hearing into the matter was told that "After that, NASA must decide whether it will develop a new heavy-lift expendable rocket, convert the Shuttle (which is a heavy-lift vehicle) into a configuration designed to carry only cargo, or use or modify existing expendable launch vehicles, which are not capable of launching the heaviest loads. The vision also calls for NASA to develop a new Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV) to carry humans back to the Moon as early as 2015."
It all sounds like a noble endeavour. Am I being too cynical in wondering if this new slant on the space program is merely a disguise for testing new military technology?
Australia, according to the Attorney general's Department, deems that to "launch a space object means launch the object into an area beyond the distance of 100 km above mean sea level, or attempt to do so." In creating this demarcation, this country has defined what is air space and what is outer space. Given that outer space isn't owned by any nation, we now have a border that sets our territory apart from these new "international waters" on which the ships we launch will sail.
Soon a new craft will begin its maiden voyages. One the shuttle's potential replacements, proposed by private corporation Rocketplane Kistler, is due to be tested from Woomera over the next few years. The Kistler K-1 is a two-stage vehicle designed for full reusability. It is 121 feet (36.9 m) in overall length, 22 feet (6.7 m) in diameter and weighs 841,000 pounds (382,300 kg) at liftoff. and is designed to be reused 100 times. Rocketplane-Kistler is a partnership that includes Lockheed-Martin and Northrop Grumman, two companies who are already bringing their technologies to South Australia to participate in the warship construction.
Kistler's plan's for Woomera aren't as new as they sound in the NASA announcements. It was noted in the 1998 memorandum on the Australian Space Activities Bill that the company's subsidiary Kistler Woomera Pty Ltd had applied to build a facility. It appears that taking the project to the defence giants has given the scheme the firepower it needed to become attractive to NASA.
It's noted in the document linked above (circulated by the same Senator Nick Minchin who is currently showing of a possible model for the new warships at Port Adelaide) that Kistler at that time were expected to be the first to utilise the legislation. This makes you wonder who had the Prime Minister's ear in order to get the legalities sorted out so quickly. Given the amount of momentum development in South Australia was given by Dick Cheney's visit to Australia in 1997, it would be unsurprising if the aspiring US Vice President had a word in John Howard's ear.
What I'm now beginning to believe is that experiments that Rocketplane-Kistler are carrying out are maybe not just to carry staff and supplies to one space station. I'm thinking more about a US Military ability to put American troops anywhere in the world as soon as Cheney snaps his fingers.
Cheney is a fan of using air-dropped Marines in operations, to the point that he reportedly attempted to bypass the US Military to implement a scheme to invade Baghdad using airborne Marines. Retired US Army Colonel Lloyd J. Matthews wrote in the March 1996 issue of ARMY Magazine that: "In late October 1990, as Central Command in Saudi Arabia was urgently laying plans for operation Desert Storm to evict the Iraqi Republican Guard from Kuwait, Secretary of Defense Richard Cheney in Washington grew restive and hatched plans of his own. Deciding to come up with "something bolder" in the way of an offensive plan, he had personnel on the Joint Staff formalise his ideas and then actually pitched them to President Bush before they were ever revealed to General Norman Schwarzkopf, the commander on the ground responsible for planning and implementing the operation. Cheney's plan: drop the 82nd airborne division on top of missile-command sites near the far-western edge of Iraq, then have the Division link up with elements of the 101st Air Assault Division and 3rd Armored Cavalry Division and then hightail it eastward to threaten Baghdad. As General Schwarzkopf pointed out to JCS Chairman Colin Powell, Cheney's plan was logistically flawed and subsequently derailed.
In the late 1990's Cheney was yet to return to the White House to have another go at seizing Baghdad and providing security of future US oil supply. As he travelled to Australia in '97 as CEO of Halliburton, and while the new Howard Government was working out the legalities so that the Kistler project could proceed, Cheney possessed the ability to provide levels of security for the facility capable of providing success for his previously failed invasion. Cheney acquired the Australian engineering company Kinhill as a template for Halliburton Australia, and created a prominent international headquarters for in the nearest substantial city to the spaceport, the South Australian capital of Adelaide. Cheney's Crew were given control of Adelaide's water supply. They were responsible for the creation of a railway that linked the country to the world via the Outback, They created development plans for SA suburbs and country towns and the roads that link them. A Halliburton chief, who sat on the State's Economic Development Board, was placed in charge of the smaller contractors for warships that would be compatible with the US Missile Shield, of which an important radar detection system was installed. The locale became internationally prominent as a defence hub, envisaged to be a technological twin of the Bush home city of Austin Texas. B-2 bombers from Guam began to overfly the Outback on mission practices, and facilities for training US soldiers and equipment through "Joint training" were enhanced. A desalination plant that be capable, using Halliburton technology, of a guaranteed Woomera water supply has just been announced.
I've just finished reading a piece in Popular Science discussing the use of new jet technology to launch US Marines to anywhere in the world. Using such technology would allow, for example, US soldiers based in Australia to be on the doorsteps of Tehran in just a few hours of travel. While implementation of such activity is still far away, the required technologies are coming along nicely, and much of the relevant experimentation is being carried out Down Under.
Speaking at an Australian conference on hypersonic transport last year Retired Major General Robert Dickman, the US Air Force's Deputy Undersecretary for Military Space, , explained why Woomera is so useful for the US military as a Scramjet test centre. "Of course," he said, "the downside from testing from the Cape [Canaveral] or any other ocean based testing range is that it's very hard to recover things that don't work to determine the problem, or things that do work to see how well they operated and how close they might have been to failure." He added that our "From a United States perspective we'll do much of our work at home, but, as we've learned, Woomera is a great place to test. The costs are low enough that an experimenter or demonstrator can accept that not every flight must be a success- and we can recover the hardware."
Dickman also said on his Australian vist that "Propulsion, of course, brings a whole separate set of unanswered questions. Turbine technology can probably get to Mach 4, Ram/Scramjets to somewhere above Mach 6. Beyond that, the question is where hydrocarbon fuelled scramjets will top out - Mach 8, or maybe Mach 10? What's the limit for Hydrogen fuelled scramjets? Is a combined cycle system the future for space access?"
Until the scramjet technology becomes feasible the already existing technology will have to suffice. If Cheney had planned to use Kistler-style rockets to carry attacking troops to a hotspot in the '90s, he'll be able to "make do" in this early stage of the New American Century. In the meantime both the old and new technologies have a home in which to hone their rough edges.
This year marks Woomera's 60th birthday. As past residents, many of them former representatives of the US and UK Governments, return there to reminisce, they could well be gathering at place that will one day be remembered as the womb of an interplanetary human civilisation. The visions of the great cultural inventors Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke and Robert Heinlein have the potential to be enacted within the next few years, as the rapid advances in computer, biological and nanotech technology enable us to leap into the universe.
Alternatively, Woomera and South Australia could become globally detested as the place from which one nations military might could inflict hand-to-hand Shock and Awe in any region of the world at a moment's notice.
To use the old cliché that "the choice is ours" would be meaningless. In dedicating technology to war or peace, the choice belongs to Dick Cheney.