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3rd World Sets Sights on Space

For lands like Nigeria, a craft in orbit bespeaks economic clout, though one nation's pride is a rival's worry. China readies a manned flight.

October 14, 2003|Peter Pae | Times Staff Writer

At Nigeria's mission control -- really a small, windowless office lined with desktop computers in the country's capital, Abuja -- 15 aerospace engineers are preparing for a historic moment.

The engineers, many of them recent graduates, will this week begin receiving pictures of Earth beamed from Nigeria's first satellite.

Nigeria is a country where about 1% of the population has working telephones. Nevertheless, the satellite is "a matter of great national pride," said Solomon Olaniyi, spokesman for Nigeria's nascent National Space Research and Development Agency. While the space event won't quite muster the same attention as a World Cup soccer match, "the nation will be watching," he said.

Since the Columbia space shuttle disaster in February, the U.S. has been engaged in an intense debate over the future of its space program.

But for the majority of the world, space is still considered the ultimate frontier. Leaving the confines of Earth bestows pride and bespeaks technological clout. Satellite launches, almost routine in the U.S., grab headlines and garner live-television coverage elsewhere much the way the first Apollo missions captured Americans' imagination four decades ago.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday November 05, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 1 inches; 36 words Type of Material: Correction
Space exploration -- A chart accompanying an Oct. 14 article in Section A about space exploration omitted Japan and a consortium of 15 European nations from a list of countries that have sent a lunar probe.

Dozens of countries are racing to reach space before their neighbors -- or their foes.

Leading the pack is China, which is expected to send an astronaut into orbit this week on the Shenzhou 5, or "Divine Vessel," joining the U.S. and the Russians in an elite club that has enjoyed a monopoly on human spaceflight since the early 1960s.

With the launch, the Chinese hope to begin a quest that even the two world powers long ago abandoned -- eventually constructing a permanent human base on the moon.

India has similar ambitions but will focus on sending unmanned probes, first to the moon and then to explore the solar system. Smaller countries, like South Korea and Pakistan, are trying to enter the fray, setting up space programs with hopes of building rockets and launching them from their own facilities.

More than 50 nations have national space programs, according to the United Nation's Office for Outer Space Affairs.

"Space, at least Earth's orbit, is no longer the exclusive domain of the few," said Howard E. McCurdy, a space historian at American University in Washington, D.C.

Staying on the cutting edge of space exploration, of course, is still enormously expensive. The U.S. spends $15 billion a year funding the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Each shuttle launch costs about $400 million.

But the price tag for simple space missions has dropped from billions of dollars to millions since the Soviet Union launched Yuri Gagarin into Earth's orbit on April 12, 1961. The engineering know-how can be bought on the open market from any number of private companies.

Space technology has reached the point that even small aerospace companies can attempt human spaceflight. Twenty teams from seven countries, including Mojave-based aerospace pioneer Burt Rutan, are racing to develop a spacecraft that can loft three humans into low Earth orbit, or about 60 miles high. The first firm to do so gets $10 million from a St. Louis-based space advocacy foundation.

By sending up a satellite, a country "immediately becomes a player" on the world stage, said Louis Friedman, executive director of the Planetary Society, a Pasadena-based space exploration advocacy group. "They want to be an economic and technological power in their region, and going to space is a way to show that."

For some countries, sending up a rocket or a satellite puts them in a special class, "like being a nuclear power without all the politics of having a nuclear program," said Marco A. Caceres, space analyst for the aerospace research firm the Teal Group.

He noted, for instance, how Nigeria, by launching the refrigerator-size NigeriaSat-1 last month atop a Russian rocket, quickly distinguished itself from other African countries. South Africa, Morocco, Egypt and Algeria are the other African nations that have a presence in space.

Nigerian officials argue that space technology can help the nation overcome some of its earthly problems. For instance, the satellite, built at a cost of $13 million, will provide information about its forest and water resources, as well as allowing government officials to keep track of oil fields. Nigeria is one world's largest exporters of oil, but thieves tap into pipelines and siphon hundreds of thousands of barrels a day.

Nigeria kick-started its space program by tapping a commercial satellite maker, British-based Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd., which built a micro-satellite and a ground-control station for the country. The contract included 18 months of training, including teaching about a dozen Nigerian scientists how to design, build and operate satellites.

For the Nigerians, the scientists represent the first vanguard of the nation's space program. "We hope we'll be able to do more on our own," said Olaniyi, Nigeria's space agency spokesman.

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