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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

AEROSPACE

The Sky Is the Limit
Indonesia acts to win
Southeast Asia's satellite wars

By Keith Loveard / Jakarta


FIRST, THERE WAS INDONESIA'S locally developed N-250 commuter plane, which flew triumphantly last August. Then came the country's $2-billion project to build a 130-seat jetliner for commercial use in nine years. Get ready for Jakarta's most ambitious effort: a space center in Bandung to build satellites by the early years of the next decade, and a rocket launch site soon after. Already, N-250 developer IPTN has helped make a minor section -- the wiring harness -- of Palapa C1, the Indonesian-owned satellite put into orbit in January. "We employ interns from IPTN," says George Tadler, Palapa C program manager for U.S. satellite maker Hughes Space and Communications International.

It may not be the best time to talk about rockets and satellites. Last week, Israeli TV station broadcast what it claims is footage of the destruction caused by the explosion of a Chinese Long March booster in February. Beijing had said that six people died and 100 homes burned when the rocket crashed into a populated area. The Israeli technician who shot the video alleges that the death toll is much higher. Indonesia appreciates the cautionary tale, but is convinced it has strong prospects as a satellite maker and launcher. The country's first orbiter went into service in 1976. Privatized in 1993, the Palapa satellite business is now operated by PT Satelindo, which is controlled by Bambang Trihatmodjo, a son of President Suharto.

Not that Indonesia is the only one in Southeast Asia into satellites. A U.S. rocket launched Malaysia's first bird, Measat I, in January. Two groups in the Philippines are competing to put the country's first orbiter in space. Two Thai satellites were sent aloft in 1993 and 1994; three other Thai-owned birds are in the planning stage. Hong Kong-based AsiaSat, partly owned by Beijing investment arm CITIC, has sent up two. The Indonesians see AsiaSat, which said last week its next satellite will be launched by a Russian rocket, not China's Long March, as the one to beat in the race to service the region's telecommunications needs. The Thais could have been contenders, but the decision by satellite-backer Prem Tinsulanond not to remain as prime minister in 1988 set back its fledgling industry.

Indonesia seems to have the edge in know-how and experience. "I've been working with private companies for 20 out of 27 years of my career," says Louk Jurgens, deputy director of satellites for PT Satelindo, which owns Palapa C1. "I wouldn't be here if I didn't believe this country was a winner." He was advising the Thai government on its program when Prem stepped down. A key advantage now: a team of about 45 highly trained Indonesian engineers. "They're the cream of the cream," says Jurgens. Hughes, which aims to remain as Indonesia's supplier of choice, has been running an internship program for Indonesians to work on Palapa and other satellite systems.

The apprentice wants to eventually take a direct hand in the making of orbiters. "We've seen many anomalies in the last 12 months in many satellites made by different people," complains Adi Adiwoso, CEO of Indonesia's second satellite company, PT Pasifik Satelit Nusantara. "This must be caused by the complexity of the design and the speed of their construction." Because of a battery problem, four of Palapa C1's 34 solar-powered transponders will be silenced twice a year during eclipses. Can Indonesians do better? As they are demonstrating with their other ventures in the sky, they sure are willing to try.


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