Launch site in Alaska eyed in wake of terrorist attacks

Commercial facility is well-situated for anti-missile test site

September 21, 2001|By Marego Athans | Marego Athans,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

KODIAK, Alaska - Forty-five miles down an unpaved road that winds past lakes, rivers and mountain vistas, past forests of Sitka spruce, past grazing bison, horses and cows, and fishermen wading knee-deep in pursuit of silver salmon, a handful of beige buildings overlook the Pacific. A trailer is marked "NASA."

Otherwise, it might be hard to imagine that rockets are launched here. About 300 bison roam the rugged terrain, often gathering on the helicopter pad and occasionally straying so close that launch operators have to shoo them away.

But perched on this 3,100 acres called Narrow Cape on the northeastern tip of Kodiak Island is a state-of-the-art launch complex that is drawing an increasing amount of attention these days.

It has been described as a great place to test the missile defense program that President Bush wants to develop or as a prime example of federal pork that threatens the character of the island.

Today, the Kodiak Launch Complex is scheduled to send its first mission into Earth orbit, a $38 million NASA-sponsored launch of Athena 1, a Lockheed Martin rocket carrying four satellites - one of them built on a shoestring budget by midshipmen at the U.S. Naval Academy using parts from Radio Shack and hobby shops.

With the nation seemingly on a course toward war and Democrats in Congress moderating their opposition to the Bush missile defense plan, residents on this island of 15,000 say they expect that missile silos will soon be excavated here.

Any doubts about that crumbled in the wreckage of last week's terror attacks in Washington and New York City.

"What we saw last week was the Model A version of a Cadillac delivery system," said Pat Ladner, executive director of the Alaska Aerospace Development Corp., the state agency that runs the launch complex.

"If rogue nations have or get a delivery system like a long-range rocket to deliver ... an intercontinental weapon, they don't have to worry about the [Federal Aviation Administration] closing down the airports. We can't afford to wait until the threat is real."

In purely economic terms, the likely increase of business from the Pentagon comes just in time for the launch complex, which was conceived in 1991 to ride the expected boom in satellite communications as well as serve military and government customers.

While there are other U.S. spaceports, such as Cape Canaveral in Florida and Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, the Kodiak complex bills itself as the nation's only commercial launch site not connected with the federal government - though it has received ample federal and state funding and plays host to NASA missions. But its independence from government enables it to reduce red tape, says Ladner, a former Air Force lieutenant colonel who worked on the Pentagon's "star wars" strategic defense program.

"The fact that you don't have to share it with a big formal system like NASA or the Air Force makes it easier," says Gil Moore, a retired professor at the U.S. Air Force Academy who now designs educational satellites that involve students around the world, including one about to blast into space on Athena 1.

"It has a frontier feeling - it's fun. And the fact that there's 45 miles of dirt road, and the buffalo are running all over, and there are eagles flying and salmon ... that's fun, too."

Construction on the $40 million site began in 1998. It sits on 3,100 acres of state-owned property, though the range itself covers only a 27-acre "footprint" divided among four buildings - a launch pad with a 170-foot tower that is enclosed to shield rockets from bad weather, a launch control center, and buildings for processing and assembling payloads of up to 8,000 pounds. Its launch pad and processing facility are "equal to or better than our facility at the cape," said George Diller, a NASA spokesman.

Kodiak was chosen in part because its high latitude lends itself to missions on a polar trajectory, which allows the satellite to map virtually every inch of the Earth. And its position on the edge of open ocean diminishes the chance of spent rocket stages dropping on inhabited areas.

For missile test launches, the spot is ideal because the trajectory mimics one that would respond to an incoming missile from North Korea. In such a case, under the Bush plan, the target missile would be launched from Kwajalein Atoll and Kodiak would send the interceptor.

"Kodiak sits right on the arc of the curve," Ladner said. "It's the real test. It's the way the real thing is going to happen."

The island also happens to have a solid infrastructure, with one of the busiest fishing ports in the country and the largest Coast Guard base in the United States.

So far, KLC has launched three suborbital rockets for the Air Force. The business hasn't shown a profit yet, though Ladner says he expects to break even this year.

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