Lost in Space

Could the former Homestead Air Force Base become a launch pad for satellites? Sure -- when pigs fly.

In the not-so-distant future, swarms of new satellites will join the scores that today float above the globe. The high priests of the communications industry prophesy marvels: laptop computers that connect to the Internet through space rather than phone lines, e-mail by wristwatch, and maybe even celestial advertising. (Picture the Nike swoosh going one-on-one with Orion).

Now some of the pioneers of this new technology are turning their gaze from the heavens to South Florida -- a fact that recently made national news. Two California-based companies hope to transform the Homestead airbase into a satellite launch pad.

"There is a happy coincidence of having a company interested in South Florida and a facility that is becoming available," says David Teek, a spokesman for the Spaceport Florida Authority, a state agency formed to nurture an outer-space-related industry.

But hold on a nanosecond. Before the plan shifts into warp drive there are more than a few asteroid belts to clear.

For starters, predictions that the technology will be available in five years are debatable. When dealing with untested systems, any number of unforeseen problems can cause delay. One of the companies interested in Homestead is Kelly Space and Technology of San Bernardino, California. Kelly's plan calls for a Boeing 747 to tow a space plane called the Astroliner to an altitude of 20,000 feet over the Atlantic Ocean. The Astroliner will then break off and launch into the heavens, send a satellite into orbit, and return to Earth, says Bob Keltner, project manager for Kelly. Keltner predicts that his company will have a demonstration model ready within a year and a half. Satellites will be launched commercially by 2002. The company plans two launch sites --- one on each coast. Homestead is attractive because of its proximity to the ocean and its existing airport facilities, he comments.

Another scheme, by Space Access of Palmdale, California, appears to be even further in the future. An airplanelike spacecraft powered by liquid hydrogen would take off like a conventional jet, then fly high enough and fast enough to deliver a satellite into orbit. Company president and long-time Florida resident Stephen Wurst admits the technology remains experimental, but he estimates a commercial vehicle will be ready for launch in four years. Space Access wants to use Homestead because of its proximity to the equator, which allows good access to low orbits.

Finances are another problem. Neither group has yet found a backer. Will anyone pay for such far-out and costly ventures? Wurst insists that a leader in aerospace financing is searching for capital on his company's behalf; he declined to name the group. Keltner too claims that sufficient capital is nearly within his firm's grasp.

Even if money and technology problems are solved, it seems unlikely satellites will start their voyage skyward from Homestead any time soon. "We are going to be faced with the problem of politics," laments Dick Bauer, president of the Vision Council, a public-private partnership that attracts business to south Dade. Bauer is referring obliquely to the fact that the base is already promised to someone else --- the politically powerful Homestead Air Base Developers Inc.(HABDI). The group plans to turn the base into a commercial airport.

Some business leaders and environmentalists in Homestead prefer the satellite-launch companies to HABDI. The reason: Flights would be less frequent and would likely produce less pollution. (HABDI lawyers did not respond to four telephone messages seeking comment). Environmentalists have long criticized the proposed airport because it would be located between Everglades and Biscayne national parks. The conservationists forced the air force and the Federal Aviation Administration to temporarily block airport construction and to study the facility's possible effects. Now the Vision Council has persuaded the feds to consider satellite launch as an alternative to HABDI.

Miami-Dade Mayor Alex Penelas hopes the projects could coexist in Homestead. "There is a perception that [HABDI has] the right to develop the entire base, and that's not true," says Penelas. "HABDI only has the right to develop a small percentage of the land." Yet county officials say HABDI would need to approve a lease for Space Access. Moreover, a conflict between the two uses seems inevitable. Satellite missions must be precisely scheduled and would require up to an hour of exclusive runway use. "It does kind of muddy the waters for us," Keltner sighs.

Environmentalists insist they are against any proposal that includes a commercial airport. "If [the satellite launch] were to be a stand-alone facility we wouldn't oppose it," says Don Chinquina, executive director of the Tropical Audubon Society.

"It doesn't sound like it could come together," admits Bauer, "but if you hit the jackpot you've changed what South Florida looks like." Wurtz of Space Access says the company will wait around only so long before looking elsewhere. "The process is out of our control," he admits. "We hope sanity prevails.

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