A small German firm is launching rockets from Zaire. The world-wide campaign to discredit it is a fraud. Why it was done reveals some bizarre realities of international power politics.
"Black" propaganda…refer[s] to the spreading of false information in order to influence people's opinions or actions. Disinformation actually is a special type of "black" propaganda which hinges on absolute secrecy.…originally, it was something of a Soviet specialty, and the Russian word for it, dezinformatsiya, is virtually a direct analogue of our own. Within the KGB there is even a Department of Disinformation.
The CIA and the Cult of Intelligence, p. 173.
"Germans Use Zaire for Missile Tests," read the headline of a startling AP story last December. It was based on a press release issued by Penthouse magazine, promoting an article to be released in its March issue. Publisher Bob Guccione stated that news of the story was being released in advance of publication "because of the gravity and enormity of the situation.…This stunning, clandestine development has been proceeding in the dark, without the knowledge of the American people."
And the story itself, when it appeared two months later, lived up to its sensational advance billing. Veteran reporter Tad Szulc let fly with both barrels right in the opening paragraph: "With the knowledge and approval of the United States, West Germany is secretly testing the cruise missile—potentially the most deadly weapon of the nuclear age—and the Intermediate Range Ballistic Missile (IRBM) at huge proving grounds in eastern Zaire in the heart of Africa. This program is in deliberate disregard of international agreements on the limiting of West German rearmament—specifically, the 1954 Treaty of Brussels."
Szulc reported that the West German government has constructed an elaborate cover story to disguise the nature of its operations in Zaire. It is using "what Bonn euphemistically describes as a 'private company'"—known as OTRAG—as a front. Ostensibly, OTRAG is engaged in "research on weather satellites." In fact, reports Szulc, it is manufacturing and testing cruise missiles and IRBMs in Zaire for the West German government. The company itself, he says, is no more than a front for the major German aerospace and defense contractors, which are supplying the hardware that goes into the missiles.
Why Zaire? Although the 1954 Treaty of Brussels prohibits the production, on German soil, of "long-range missiles and guided missiles," it says nothing about production of such missiles by Germans elsewhere in the world. As Szulc sees it, the German government has for years been itching to get its hands on cruise missiles. In the present geopolitical environment, the US government has been none too eager to come out publicly in favor of striking this restriction from the treaty. The European Left could make all sorts of propaganda out of renewed fears of "German militarism." But behind the scenes, he says, the CIA and the Defense Department are only too happy to assist the Germans in getting around the letter of the treaty. In fact, says Szulc, the US government has not only recruited American-trained scientists and provided "political coordination in Kinshasa, Bonn, and Washington" but has also supplied "cruise missile and other advanced technological know-how" to the West Germans.
Among the evidence cited by Szulc is the apparently startling lease contract signed by OTRAG and the government of Zaire. It provides that OTRAG may "take all measures that it deems necessary for the exercise of full and complete power in the territory" (which measures 38,000 square miles). OTRAG also enjoys the exclusive power to discipline its personnel and their families in the area, exempting them from Zairian laws. And on request from OTRAG, the government has agreed to "evacuate" from the area all persons whom OTRAG does not wish to be there. The government has also agreed to close all air space over the area, except to its own and OTRAG's planes. And no "observations" may be made in the area without OTRAG's authorization. In exchange for granting these concessions, for the 24-year term of the lease the Zaire government is to receive annual payments running into tens of millions of dollars (various conflicting numbers have appeared in the press), the free launching of an experimental reconnaissance satellite, and a 20 percent discount on any other satellite launchings it may wish carried out by OTRAG.
WON'T BE FOOLED AGAIN
I read Szulc's article with a growing sense of deja vu. No one likes to be taken in by disinformation, least of all an editor. I recalled with painful clarity the day that Howard Hughes' ostensible ocean-mining project—which I had trumpeted mightily as an example of courageous free enterprise ("The Seabed Power Struggle," REASON, July 1974)—was revealed to be a CIA cover story for its project to retrieve a Soviet submarine from the ocean floor. In the case of OTRAG, likewise, I had been attracted by the story of an innovative private company, challenging the might of government-funded space programs with its own low-cost but effective launch vehicle design ("Private Enterprise in Space," Trends, REASON, Jan. 1978).
And, in fact, if OTRAG is a cover story, it is a quite impressive one. The company's existence and general approach to developing low-cost launch vehicles have been common knowledge in the US aerospace community for several years. Articles about OTRAG began appearing in Earth/Space News early in 1976, culminating in a front-page story in its July/August 1977 issue reporting the first test launch of OTRAG's prototype space booster. This was followed by a detailed technical article by Robert Ropelewski in the September 12 issue of Aviation Week, the leading aerospace magazine. Most recently, Popular Science featured an in-depth, illustrated article titled "Bargain-Basement Rocket" in its March 1978 issue.
As portrayed in these articles, OTRAG is indeed a private firm, funded by some 600 German investors. It is the outgrowth of more than a decade of design and development by a 38- year-old German aeronautical and propulsion engineer—Lutz T. Kayser. According to these articles, Kayser has been working on rockets since he was a teenager, having founded the German Society for Rocket Technology and Space Travel while in high school in Stuttgart. He studied under rocket pioneer (and former Werner von Braun associate) Eugene Sanger at Stuttgart Technical University, and under Sanger's guidance developed the world's smallest liquid-fuel propulsion unit.
During the 1960's Kayser, Sanger, and Wolf Pilz (another rocket pioneer) began working on the idea of a simple, low-cost space launch vehicle—a kind of space truck, in contrast to the Rolls Royce approach being pursued elsewhere. The key to holding down costs, they concluded, lay in two basic design principles: off-the-shelf, mass-produced parts and an extremely low-cost fuel. Their choice for the latter was a mixture of diesel oil and nitric acid. Though containing only about half the energy per pound of more conventional rocket mixtures, it costs only one-twentieth as much.
When Sanger died in 1970 (Pilz having retired), Sanger's widow helped Kayser found a company known as Technologie-Forschungs-Gmbh. Between 1971 and 1974 this company received several million dollars in R&D grants from the German federal government, but Kayser retained the rights to the results. When the government lost interest in the project in 1974, Kayser turned to private investors. Reportedly, his 600 backers have put $26 million into the new venture—Orbital Transport-und Raketen-Aktiengesellschaft (OTRAG). Kayser also signed on Kurt H. Debus, former director of NASA's Kennedy Space Center and another von Braun associate, as chairman of OTRAG's board.
From 1974 to 1977 Kayser perfected his diesel oil/nitric acid engine, making some 2,600 test firings on a test stand rented from the German Aerospace Research and Experimental Station at Lampoldshausen, north of Stuttgart. Meanwhile, his staff of 50 engineers and technicians was busy working out the ultrasimple design for the launch vehicle. A whole family of space launch boosters can be constructed by bundling together larger and larger quantities of the basic OTRAG fuel-tank-and-engine module, leading one German aerospace expert to characterize the booster as a "bundle of asparagus." In line with Kayser's low-cost approach, the modules are constructed from such common industrial parts as steel pipeline tubes, chemical industry ball valves, and Volkswagen windshield wiper motors (see box, p. 23).
On May 17, 1977, OTRAG made its first test launch from its facility in Zaire. The booster was quite small, consisting of only two standard tank-engine modules. Nevertheless, the test (seen on German television) was a complete success, the rocket reaching an altitude of about 20 kilometers (65,600 feet). The company plans a succession of test launches through 1981, with each booster composed of a larger number of modules (see illustration). The 1981 module would be capable of putting a 2,000-kilogram (4,400-pound) satellite into geostationary orbit—or a 22,000-pound satellite into a low earth orbit.
And that, according to OTRAG, is the point of its launch vehicle development program—to launch satellites for what it foresees as a booming market. Communications satellites, multispectral scanning (mineral prospecting and mapping) satellites, and reconnaissance satellites—these are the uses OTRAG claims for its launch vehicle family. And it expects customers mostly from among Third World governments, which either won't be able to afford or would prefer not to use such government launch vehicles as NASA's Space Shuttle or the European Space Agency's new Ariane booster.
Altogether, then, OTRAG presents an impressive and plausible cover story…if, indeed, it is a cover story.
CURIOUSER AND CURIOUSER
It was against this background information on OTRAG that I encountered Szulc's Penthouse article. Not wanting to be taken in again by a CIA cover story, I checked my initial impulse to dismiss Szulc's story as a publicity stunt or "black" propaganda. Szulc, after all, is an experienced reporter. He spent 20 years as a New York Times diplomatic correspondent, before turning freelance in the 1970's. Both at the Times and after, he was known to have numerous sources within the government, including, it appeared, some friendly contacts within the CIA. Victor Marchetti, in his book on the CIA, reports that Szulc "uncovered nearly the complete story" of the Bay of Pigs invasion before it took place (though he gives no clue as to how Szulc found out). In 1975 Szulc did a series of five articles for Penthouse "exposing" the world of the intelligence community and its covert operations—from Chile to Vietnam to Washington. Consequently, it is not implausible that some of Szulc's same sources within the government decided to leak him information about a secret project to help West Germany acquire a cruise missile capability—just as he claims.
But is that, in fact, what happened? A careful reading of Szulc's article raises a number of troubling questions. To begin with, he lists not a single source that can be verified. "This article," he writes, "is based on information obtained in private discussions with highly reliable sources, who have access to most of the relevant knowledge, in Washington as well as in Western Europe." Further on he says that "knowledgeable informants in Washington, speaking privately, do not buy the German cover story"; and, "still in private, officials in Washington have said that the Zaire enterprise represents a colossal international deception." So far, we do not even know which government these "informants" or "officials" work for.
Only in two places does Szulc become more specific. He states that "Carter administration officials have privately confirmed" that the CIA has recruited American-trained scientists for "this program" and has provided "political coordination." Further on he says that "American officials, speaking privately, have indicated that there is a strong possibility that the United States has made available to West Germany the required technology for the cruise missile and IRBM projects under the so-called Program of Cooperation (POC)" (emphasis added). But an official speculation is a far cry from a fact, as Szulc should be the first to admit.
Reached in his Washington office in April, Szulc told me he stands by his story "absolutely." Asked if he could be more specific about his sources, all he would say, very generally, was that most of his information was obtained from and corroborated by "US government sources."
Aside from citing unnamed sources, what else does Szulc offer in support of his contention? Well, he tells us of a "glaring contradiction" in Bonn's "Zaire cover story." It seems that "a photographic blowup of a cruise missile was displayed at the 1977 air show at Le Bourget, near Paris"—presumably, though Szulc does not say so, in a German government exhibit. Somehow, from the fact that such a photo was displayed, Szulc leaps to the conclusion that it was a German cruise missile, even though "there was no explanation as to where, when, or how the Germans had produced a cruise missile." Then—with a straight face?—Szulc follows up with this sentence: "American specialists who studied the photograph have concluded, however, that the missile was flying over what appeared to be African terrain." What appeared to be African terrain? What kind of American specialists are these? Experts in spotting gazelle droppings in blown-up aerial photos?
Incidentally, a "cruise missile" is nothing more than a small, lightweight airframe with a jet engine and very sophisticated computer-based guidance system. The essential technology that makes it a fearsome weapon is the guidance system, all of which is hidden inside the vehicle. From the outside, there is no way to tell whether a specific vehicle is actually a cruise missile or merely a remotely piloted vehicle (RPV)—a cheap and increasingly common, small, unmanned aircraft used for surveillance and fire control. Quite possibly, Szulc's expert informant saw a photo of a German RPV and mistook it for a cruise missile.
For an experienced reporter, Szulc has done a fairly sloppy job with his Penthouse article. He lists the size of the OTRAG leasehold as "a 100,000 square mile area (the size of the state of Colorado)"—when it is actually only 100,000 square kilometers, about one-third that size. He gives the lease payments as $50 million a year, whereas the agreement specifies, not a fixed amount, but five percent of OTRAG's revenues from launches for customers. Payments do not even begin until 1980, and at OTRAG's estimated 1981-90 launch rate of 10 per year, averaging $12 million in revenue per launch, Zaire's share would be only about $6 million per year, not $50 million. Szulc also, unaccountably, misspells the name of West Germany's largest aerospace firm, Messerschmidt-Boelkow-Blohm, rendering it instead Messerschmidt-Belkov and Blaum.
Nor is the sloppiness confined to such details. For one devoted to exposing a cover story, Szulc can't even get the story straight. (He evidently never read the September Aviation Week story.) Every time he mentions OTRAG's rationale, he refers to "research on weather satellites," as opposed to development of a commercial satellite launcher. This is a classic strawman. After characterizing OTRAG's purpose in this manner, he later "discovers" that the firm's contract with Zaire makes "no mention of weather satellites." No kidding! But it does explicitly mention reconnaissance and communications satellites—both primary commercial prospects for OTRAG's launchers. Further, Szulc notes that "American experts dispute the need of an area as large as Colorado [sic] for testing weather satellites. But the cruise missile and especially the IRBM do require a vast operational area so that they can be recovered within the proving grounds after launch." But so, of course, does the testing of a multistage space launch vehicle—a possibility Szulc conveniently fails to consider.
By now you may agree that Szulc has failed to establish the presence of a cruise missile project in Zaire—but what about IRBMs? What's the difference, after all, between a satellite-launching missile and a ballistic missile? Aren't most US satellites launched by Thor, Atlas, and Titan missiles—originally developed as weapons? Couldn't OTRAG's "low-cost booster" be a German IRBM in disguise?
It's true that the larger OTRAG launchers will have range and payload capability suitable for ballistic missile purposes. But no one is likely to use them for that purpose, for a simple reason. The diesel/nitric acid fuel cannot be stored in the missiles' tanks for any length of time without risk of explosion. The missiles must be fueled just prior to launch—a long, hazardous operation, readily observable by reconnaissance satellites. Thus, the OTRAG rockets could not be launched in a first strike without giving away the attack hours ahead of time. And as a retaliatory weapon, they'd be destroyed by incoming missiles before fueling could be completed. Low-cost it may be, but diesel oil and nitric acid just does not make it as an IRBM fuel.
Szulc's story also suffers from internal inconsistency. Early in the article he portrays the government of France as "deeply concerned and even suspicious" about what OTRAG is doing in Zaire. According to Szulc, the French "asked Bonn to explain clearly the nature of the Zaire activities, but French officials are known to be unconvinced about the German cover story on weather satellites [sic]." But a few pages later, without batting an eye, Szulc reports that just last March "French aircraft flew Moroccan troops to Zaire to help Mobutu fend off the guerrilla attacks from Angola" and that "since July 1977, French, Belgian, and Moroccan advisors have been attached to the Zairian army." If the French were really so concerned that dangerous German weapons were being tested in Zaire—in fact, in virtually the same area where the guerrilla invasion occurred— why did they rush to Zaire's (and on this hypothesis, Germany's) defense? The story just does not hang together.
When all else fails, you can always resort to character assassination. Thus, Szulc refers to OTRAG president Lutz Kayser as "a mysterious figure described as a top missile expert" and goes on to throw in the unsupported allegation that "Dr. Kayser reportedly had worked in the 1960's for the National Aeronautics and Space Agency (NASA), at the height of its space program, but this affiliation is not shown in current NASA records." How very strange! He goes on to add that the CIA refused to supply him with background data on Kayser. Somehow, Aviation Week, Popular Science, the London Observer. Earth/Space News, and several other publications seem to have had no trouble unearthing reams of data about the "mysterious" Dr. Kayser, who has been well known in West Germany for years. "It was also learned," adds Szulc cryptically, "that Kurt Debus,…who worked with Werner von Braun,…is currently working for OTRAG on the Zaire project"—a strange way of referring to the company's board chairman.
Szulc also portrays OTRAG as operating in secrecy—ignoring the publicity cited earlier in a variety of media. Since the Penthouse article appeared, further detailed stories, accepting OTRAG's "cover story" at face value and going into detail about its designs and plans, have appeared in Popular Science and L-5 News. OTRAG has also corresponded quite openly with REASON contributing editor Mark Frazier over the past year, regarding the company's interest in one or more additional equatorial launch sites. Szulc acknowledges that OTRAG allowed a West German television crew to visit its facility in Zaire to film a documentary on the company's first launch, but he dismisses the result as prearranged propaganda. He does not mention the fact that "secretive" OTRAG also hired a PR firm to publicize the launch.
Besides these obvious errors and inconsistencies, there are several discrepancies between the OTRAG and Szulc versions of what is going on in Zaire—discrepancies that are not so easy to resolve in favor of one side or the other. Szulc claims that OTRAG and/or the West German government has spent $300 million on facilities in Zaire—"air strips [plural], launching ramps, housing, and a hospital." OTRAG claims to have spent less than $30 million altogether, much of this on the rocket R&D. Photos released by OTRAG show a single 7,000-foot runway, housing, a launch control bunker, and a single crude launch pad with a hoist made of logs(!). Explaining why he vetoed flying in a conventional launch tower at this stage of operations, Kayser told Popular Science: "We only needed it to hoist up the nose cone," and one made by local carpenters was quite adequate for launching the 33-foot tall prototype.
Szulc claims that OTRAG is producing missiles—cruise missiles and IRBMs—in Zaire. OTRAG claims the Zaire facility is being used only to assemble the modular stages and makes the launches, with all actual production carried out at its Stuttgart assembly plant. Szulc also claims to have "new evidence that identifies two powerful West German military-industrial complex consortia as the driving force behind the Zaire project." What is this evidence? Szulc does not say. A few paragraphs later he simply asserts that Dornier and Messerschmidt are "the principal consortiums [sic] engaged in the production of the missiles being tested in Zaire," along with the French Thompson-CSF company.
Szulc's strongest argument remains the terms of the OTRAG-Zaire lease, which he, like other critics, regards as an unprecedented waiver of sovereignty on Zaire's part—and therefore as prima facie evidence that OTRAG is only fronting for the Bonn government. Yet this is not the only plausible explanation. Mobutu's regime, though receiving some aid from the West, is dangerously close to bankruptcy. In addition, it is threatened on several frontiers by hostile forces, now being aided by Cuban troops. Under these circumstances, is it so surprising that the prospect of a free reconnaissance satellite in 1981 plus $6 million or more a year in lease revenues would prompt Mobutu to grant generous terms? And for its part, OTRAG is receiving little more than American public utility firms routinely obtain (via eminent domain) in its demand to decide whom to evacuate from the leasehold. The lease's security provisions are not that surprising either, considering the general turmoil in Africa and the predictable hostility of the Soviet bloc and its client states to OTRAG's plans.
SORTING OUT THE TRUTH
What are we to make of these claims and counterclaims? Despite his errors and inaccuracies, could Szulc's story be correct in its essential thesis? There is one sure way to verify what is going on in Zaire: the use of reconnaissance satellites. At any given time, both the United States and the Soviet Union have in orbit sophisticated photo-recon satellites that scan the globe with black and white TV, color TV, infrared TV, and still cameras. The principal US reconnaissance vehicle is the Lockheed Big Bird, a 12-ton, 55-foot-long satellite in low earth orbit. Its resolution is such that it can identify automobiles by make and model. Certain of the Soviet Cosmos satellites reportedly have similar capability.
Last July the USSR launched two recon satellites, Cosmos 922 and 932, which passed directly over the OTRAG launch site in Zaire. Satellite expert Bhupendra Jasani of the Stockholm Peace Research Institute analyzed the orbital paths of the two satellites. As he told the London Observer: "On July 20 Cosmos 922 was launched into orbit. Between July 20-24 it made four passes over the area of Zaire during daylight with optimal conditions for photography. Only one week later the Soviets launched a second satellite—Cosmos 932—to fly along the same track, only this time at much lower height to allow for high-precision photography." The Observer's Andrew Wilson goes on to report, "According to Jasani, the two Cosmos satellites would clearly have shown that the Zaire launch site contained nothing resembling a military rocket. They would also have revealed that the OTRAG airfield is a simple runway."
Presumably, the United States has also examined OTRAG's leasehold in detail via Big Bird. Yet neither the US nor the Soviet government has produced a single photograph or other piece of evidence showing military missile operations at the site. That did not stop the Soviets from unleashing a propaganda campaign against OTRAG . Less than a month after the Cosmos observations, Pravda and sympathetic European leftist journals began attacking OTRAG, claiming that it had built a military base in Zaire. Soviet president Leonid Brezhnev, welcoming Angolan head of state Agostinho Neto to Moscow last December, condemned the West for establishing "military strongholds" in Africa, "such as the missile testing center in Zaire." Replied Lutz Kayser, "Brezhnev ought to be better informed about the project. We frequently see Soviet MIG-23 reconnaissance jets over our testing grounds."
Indeed, the idea that the production and testing of cruise missiles and IRBMs could be carried out in secret—given the reconnaissance technology possessed by the US and Soviet governments—is ludicrous. Yet if either side has photographic proof of such operations, it is keeping it under wraps. All that has been released thus far is a lot of cold-war bluster.
It was noted earlier that Szulc is consistently vague about the sources of his story. Moreover, he had obviously not read the Aviation Week and Earth/Space News articles, nor had he corresponded with OTRAG, for he never did seem to grasp what the OTRAG "cover story" really involved. Where, then, did he get his information?
It turns out that the bulk of Szulc's story, right down to the misspelling of Messerschmidt-Boelkow-Blohm, had appeared previously in an article in a Paris-based leftist magazine, Afrique-Asie, on August 8, 1977. Afrique-Asie "frequently leaks secret documents emanating from East Germany and other East European sources," according to Andrew Wilson of the London Observer. The magazine's story was an expose of the "secret" lease contract between OTRAG and Zaire, a document that editor Simon Malley claimed had been provided by Nathaniel M'Bumba, commander of the abortive Soviet-backed invasion of Zaire earlier in 1977. Malley says that M'Bumba's "guerrilla informants" discovered the contract, presumably in Zaire. But according to Wilson, the contract was stolen from the safe of the Zaire embassy in Bonn. West German officials claim the theft was masterminded by East German intelligence.
Although it laid out the terms of the lease agreement, the Afrique-Asie article provided nothing more in the way of documentation of its claims of military operations and cruise missile testing. These remained, as in Szulc's article, purely assertions, supported only by emotional rhetoric. If, as seems plausible, the magazine had access to Soviet intelligence, that source provided nothing in the way of hard evidence—despite the intense observation by two Cosmos satellites.
We are left, then, with something of a puzzle. The Szulc/Afrique-Asie story is woefully undocumented, while OTRAG's story grows more plausible and better supported as time goes on and further articles appear. What, then, can we make of the opposition to OTRAG and of Szulc's role in the campaign?
To begin with, the Soviet opposition has a relatively simple surface explanation. Zaire, under the rule of General Mobutu, is considered a US client state—one of the few pro-Western governments in Africa. Discrediting Mobutu is an understandable objective of Soviet policy. Moreover, detente or no, the USSR has never relented from a virulently anti-West German policy, especially in European circles. "The Soviet Union knows exactly how to play on Western fears of a revived German militarism, and such a maneuver would give them a superb propaganda weapon," wrote one reporter last fall, commenting on the anti-OTRAG campaign.
But what about Ted Szulc? A simplistic explanation for his Penthouse article would be that Szulc, whose leftwing sympathies are well known, simply swallowed the Afrique-Asie story whole without doing much checking. This is a handy, satisfying explanation—but it won't wash. Szulc is no cub reporter, nor is he a propagandist by trade. He's a veteran investigative reporter, with a well-established network of contacts within the diplomatic and intelligence communities. It strains credulity to think that Szulc wrote the story without getting some kind of corroboration from at least some of his contacts. The question is: who…and why?
To solve this problem we need to take a closer look at what OTRAG's business really entails. One of the details Szulc reported correctly is the provision in the final section of the Zaire-OTRAG contract dealing with launches for the Zaire government. As noted earlier, the agreement provides that OTRAG will launch for Zaire, at no charge, an experimental reconnaissance satellite. As related by Kayser, Mobutu wants to be able to "see every mouse on both sides of his frontier." Subsequent launches for Zaire will beat a 20 percent discount from OTRAG's regular rates.
It is this capability to launch satellites—particularly reconnaissance satellites—that provides the clue to the real genesis of the anti-OTRAG campaign. There is a large and growing demand for such satellites among Third World governments, and OTRAG is preparing to satisfy it. In an article published in Africa magazine last December, Kayser explained that OTRAG is prepared to launch spy satellites for anyone and everyone. As a result, "no major military move, such as a concentration of troops, activities on military bases, airfields, or even roads can escape the watchful eye of the satellite cameras.…Until recently, much of this spectacular achievement was cloaked in unnecessary military secrecy."
At present, anyone wishing to launch a reconnaissance satellite must go to one of two sources: the United States or the Soviet Union. Neither government wishes to allow reconnaissance satellites outside its control. Malcolm Currie, Director of Defense Research and Engineering, has spoken of imposing a limit on the degree of resolution permitted in satellite sensors launched by NASA for anyone but the Defense Department. "DoD and NASA have 'intensely' discussed NASA's development of the thematic mapper, which will provide resolution of 30 meters (compared to the 80 meters now available on Landsat with the multispectral scanner)." But OTRAG is talking of launching recon satellites with the ability to resolve objects as small as 3 meters, like Big Bird and Cosmos 932.
The Soviet Union has gone even further, campaigning to have the UN Space Treaty amended to ban any nation but the United States and the USSR from launching reconnaissance satellites!
Of course, OTRAG's desire to launch such satellites will not guarantee them customers. They will have to deliver on their claims to provide both a technically feasible and affordable launch vehicle. But here the signs are promising. In the 1980's OTRAG's booster will be competing principally with five other (Western) launch vehicles: the US Thor-Delta, Atlas-Centaur, Titan III-C, and Space Shuttle; and the ESA's Ariane. OTRAG expects to be able to produce and launch boosters in the Thor/Atlas/Titan size range for $4-$5 million, but it plans to charge "market-oriented" prices of between $7 and $15 million—enough to turn a healthy profit and still undercut NASA's rates. The Space Shuttle's launch cost is projected at $25 million, which OTRAG also expects to undercut. The French-German Ariane, on which the ESA has spent over $1 billion, with the first launch not due until next year, is expected to cost $40 million per shot, though it will have only half the payload capability of OTRAG's largest (and much cheaper) launcher.
Thus, assuming OTRAG can raise the necessary capital and solve any remaining technical problems, it stands to clean up in the competitive battle with NASA, ESA, and the USSR. OTRAG is therefore a clear economic threat to the future viability of the government-sponsored Space Shuttle and Ariane projects. That, alone, is sufficient reason to justify an unofficial policy of hostility to OTRAG on the part of the US, French, and German governments. (And, indeed, far from supporting OTRAG, the Bonn regime has been distinctly cool to its operations, out of concern for the money it has tied up in the Ariane project.)
But it is the threat of losing its shared monopoly on reconnaissance capability that has certain segments of the US government and their Soviet counterparts worried. For if reconnaissance satellites become available to all nations, the Big Two will no longer be able to dominate international affairs and stage-manage crisis events. In every recent Middle East crisis, for example, US intelligence has supplied the Israelis with up-to-date reconnaissance data from its Big Bird satellites. The ability to withhold such information provides an incalculably valuable lever for influencing (interfering in) the affairs of others. Reconnaissance satellites give new meaning to the old adage that knowledge is power. Today that is literally true, and the wielders of this knowledge—the United States and the Soviet Union—share a monopoly on power that they are loathe to give up. The proliferation of reconnaissance satellites will shatter that monopoly, and OTRAG is the key to that proliferation.
A hint of confrontations to come was provided by Dr. Jasani of the Stockholm Peace Research Institute. Last fall, Chinese officials approached OTRAG to inquire about its launch vehicle services, Jasani told the London Observer. "After launching seven satellites between 1970-76, the Chinese suspended their experiments. Western experts believe they may have had difficulties with the weight of their space vehicles," Jasani said. Lutz Kayser has declined comment on any Chinese overtures but says he would not hesitate to launch reconnaissance satellites for them. "The answer is yes. I do not see anything wrong about China doing the same as both the Americans and the Russians have been doing for years."
Nor should we. When Israel and Egypt, Greece and Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia, Peru and Chile all have their own reconnaissance capabilities, the chances for peace will be increased, as the leverage of the United States and the Soviet Union is decreased.
It is this prospect—of drastic loss of influence and power—that chills some "American officials," making it quite plausible that they would drop hints to Tad Szulc that, yes, indeed, those damned Germans really are up to something dangerous in Zaire. And—for whatever reason—Szulc bought the story. But its implausibility and inconsistencies cannot stand the light of day.
Having been caught in this lie, let us hope "American officials" will back off from their disinformation campaign. Most importantly, US policy should firmly oppose the Soviet proposal in the United Nations to prevent other nations from acquiring reconnaissance satellites. The era of bipolar world politics is ending. The prospects for peace will be enhanced in the multipolar world of tomorrow. And little OTRAG is taking a giant step toward bringing that world into being.
The editor of REASON, Robert Poole, Jr., holds two degrees in engineering from MIT and has worked for several aerospace/defense contractors. He is an advisor to the Sabre Foundation's Space Freeport Project.
OTRAG's Space Truck
Why are conventional space launchers so expensive and OTRAG's so cheap? According to board chairman Kurt Debus, "All previous systems were either developed for military purposes and adapted to peaceful uses, or they were built for manned missions and required a whole arsenal of safety-oriented redundancy. This launcher is designed purely for freight."
With that approach. Lutz Kayser and his small band of engineers have fashioned a design of elegant simplicity. The OTRAG module consists of two tanks—one for the nitric acid oxidizer and the other for diesel oil—feeding two engines. Each tank is filled about two-thirds full, then pressurized with compressed air. Adiabatic expansion of the air keeps the fuel flowing out; no need for the expensive, trouble-prone turbopumps used on most rockets.
Another simplification was the decision not to mount the engines on gimbals for steering the craft. Instead, steering is accomplished simply by throttling back individual engines on the side where less thrust is desired. A simple ball valve controls propellant flow to each engine; under computer control it can be set either full-open, half-open, or closed. Each tank/engine module has its own microcomputer, which is fed control signals from the rocket's inertial guidance platform on the upper stage.
The guidance system and the engine thrust chambers are about the only custom components in the entire launcher. The stainless steel tanks, 12 inches in diameter and 21 feet long, are regular pipeline tubes from a German steel company. The ball valves are off-the-shelf items used in chemical plants, actuated by VW wiper motors. The microprocessor and its nicad battery power supply are also commercial items.
The basic tank/engine modules can be clustered together, virtually without limit, to make larger and larger boosters. OTRAG plans multistage rockets; but instead of stacking the stages one atop the other, it will place them one inside another, like a set of nested boxes. As the outer (first) stage burns out, the second one ignites and moves on rollers out of the first one. This approach simplifies the structure and minimizes the need for complex separation mechanisms. It also makes it possible to carry wider payloads on OTRAG's short, fat boosters. OTRAG's 1981 model will be able to carry 26-foot wide satellites, compared with a maximum of 16 feet for the NASA Space Shuttle. Kayser expects this to be a major advantage as communications satellites grow larger and more complex over the next two decades.
There are some drawbacks to OTRAG's low-cost design. The booster is not, of course, man-rated. And it is not reusable. Its weight will be about double that of conventional rockets for the same payload capacity, mostly because the diesel oil/nitric acid propellant has a lower specific impulse (thrust per pound of weight) than other fuels, so more must be carried. But, as Kayser points out, that is not of major importance. What counts, says he, is the bottom line—"the proportion between launch cost and payload cost—not the weight ratio."
Assuming that the US and Soviet governments don't put OTRAG out of business, the next few years will demonstrate whether Kayser's daring approach to rocket design is as promising in fact as it looks in theory.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "African Deception".