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California and the West | THE WASHINGTON CONNECTION
/ RICHARD SIMON

California Coalition Reaching for the Stars

May 11, 1999|RICHARD SIMON

It was sort of like that scene in "Star Wars" where beings from different planets belly up to the bar.

Except these were Californians (arguably extraterrestrial in their own right, at least in the eyes of East Coast snobs), and they were gathered to discuss a decidedly earthly matter: space money.

They were at a Capitol Hill reception for the state's congressional delegation hosted by the California Space and Technology Alliance, the state's official spaceport authority.

Its mission: to beam into California more of the ever-expanding space market, including the manufacture and launch of commercial satellites.

Times sure have changed since Edmund G. "Jerry" Brown Jr. was branded Gov. Moonbeam.

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No one is laughing anymore. There is now even a federal Office of Commercial Space Transportation.

In fact, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Huntington Beach), chairman of the space and aeronautics subcommittee of the House Science Committee, has pushed to fund research on a satellite system that would beam electricity from one part of world to another--similar to an idea floated by Gov. Moonbeam.

"It's OK to be ahead of your times, but not too far ahead," Rohrabacher joked.

But this is serious business.

Just two years ago, U.S. business launched more satellites than the government. Nearly 1,000 commercial satellites are expected to be sent up in the next decade.

"The space budget worldwide that we can go after is well over $100 billion," said Michael Wiskerchen, deputy director of the California Space Institute, a research arm of the University of California established during the Brown administration.

Competition is stiff, said former Santa Barbara Rep. Andrea Seastrand, executive director of the California Space and Technology Alliance.

Her visit to Washington was to get the state delegation behind an unified effort to keep California in the space race--a race that no longer pits the United States against Russia, but rather casts California against other states and other countries.

Rep. Howard P. "Buck" McKeon (R-Santa Clarita), for example, has been fighting to get flight testing of the X-34 at Edwards Air Force Base in his district. New Mexico, where testing was originally to take place, is fighting hard to get it back.

Additionally, more than two dozen states--including "Spaceport Montana--" are competing to be home to the $5-billion next generation space shuttle, VentureStar.

(California has proposed three launch sites for the project: Vandenberg Air Force Base, 130 miles northwest of Los Angeles; the Hi Vista region south of Edwards Air Force Base, and dry Harper Lake in San Bernardino County.)

The project is expected to provide the winning state with about 3,000 jobs. A prototype of the wedge-shaped plane is being built at Lockheed Martin Corp.'s Skunk Works in Palmdale. The selection is expected to be made within a year.

Capturing VentureStar is only one project pushed by the alliance, which has talked about a space license plate program to fund space education in the public schools.

The group is even contemplating space tourism, citing studies that show 33% of Americans would pay $10,800 for a space cruise.

"I know sometimes people snicker," Seastrand said in an interview. "But that is the future."

The group's strategic plan says: "In anticipation of future holidays in orbiting hotels, 10 million space enthusiasts already spend $1 billion annually for 'terrestrial' space tourism activities: space museums, camps, astronaut training and weightlessness simulation excursions."

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Things are looking up for the commercial space market in California--even if a satellite did disappear after launch from Vandenberg on the eve of the congressional reception.

After visiting every one of California's congressional offices, Seastrand said she was encouraged. But she added: "To get the entire delegation, we have to continue to convince them that we're at the threshold of a new space services age, and the potential is so great for California."

She cited a visit to one unidentified office where a staffer's eyes glazed over--until she told them they had 300 space-related businesses in their district. Reaction was much the same in another office--a congressman from an agricultural district--until she explained how farmers use satellite technology.

The alliance--governed by a 27-member board made up of government, industry and university representatives and funded by the California Trade and Commerce Agency--is seeking $10 million from Washington to improve the launch site at Vandenberg.

The group is lobbying for passage of the Commercial Space Competitiveness Act, that would extend federal indemnification limiting the liability of private companies for third-party losses that could occur as a result of a commercial space launch.

Rohrabacher, meanwhile, plans to reintroduce a "zero-gravity, zero-tax" measure that would exempt businesses--including their shareholders--from capital gains and other taxes if they invest in new space endeavors.

"We have just scratched the surface of using space to improve the well-being of human beings," he said.

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