Woomera we have a problem

South Australia's Woomera Rocket Range had been lying idle for some 20 years until the Keating government decided to join the space race, hitching its star to German know-how and finance.

In July 1994, cabinet gave the go-ahead to an agreement between Australia and West Germany for the recovery of a space capsule in the desert.

The small, Russian-built spacecraft housed "Express", a project involving German and Japanese re-entry and micro-gravity experiments.

It would involve the first planned southern hemisphere re-entry of a space capsule. It would also have been the first time a civilian capsule had been launched in one country to land and be recovered in another.

The Minister for Small Business, Customs and Construction, Chris Schacht???, a South Australian, told cabinet the project raised new business prospects for Woomera.

Mr Schacht estimated the project would give local contacts about $750,000 worth of work originally and put Woomera under international attention as a space industry centre.

He warned there may be criticisms from the South Australian government and business if permission was refused and advised cabinet that local Aboriginal communities had been consulted and had not objected to the project.

"Under the proposed agreement, the Australian Space Officer will appoint the Australian Range Safety Officer who will have the power to veto re-entry commands to the capsule if, among other factors, the landing will not be within agreed safety parameters," Mr Schacht said.

Cabinet gave the go-ahead and the German Space Agency (DARA) spent $1.5 million in Australia establishing radar and communications facilities, bringing contracts to companies such as British Aerospace Australia, which installed telemetry and tracking gear at Tjaliri Tracking Station on the Mabel Creek pastoral property.

But the project effectively went up in smoke within months.

In January 1995, the $80 million, German capsule that was to have landed in Woomera's Prohibited Zone after 5?? days in orbit crashed in the Pacific soon after launch from Kagoshima, southern Japan.

That was not the end of it.

The following April, cabinet decided to freeze funding for the National Space Program, including the Australian Space Office. The program had been running since 1986, but the Keating government was looking for savings and space was an easy hit.

This story Woomera we have a problem first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.