That programme centred on the development of a medium-range ballistic missile (MRBM) to carry nuclear warheads, and which could also be adapted to launch a low-earth orbit (Leo) spy satellite.
This satellite was not, in fact, a purely South African project – it was developed with the assistance of another country which, even today, sources are most reluctant to identify.
With the end of the Cold War – both globally and in Southern Africa – attempts were made by Denel’s Houwteq division – responsible for the development of the rocket and the satellite – to commercialise the programme.
The idea of turning the MRBM into a satellite launch vehicle was soon scrapped. However, prospects for commercialising the spy satellite were much better and, in mid-1991, the spy satellite programme became the Greensat programme.
Houwteq undertook a study which indicated that had the satellite programme been successfully commercialised, it would have created 3 000 high-technology jobs in South Africa.
Greensat would have been about 2,3 m high, with a mass of 330 kg – compare the 620 mm height and 64 kg mass of Sunsat 1, the only South African satellite to reach orbit so far – and would have carried panchromatic and multispectral cameras.
Big in comparison with a microsatellite, it would have been small in comparison to other earth imaging satellites then in service, such as the French ‘Spot’.
Greensat, if it had succeeded, would have given South Africa a market advantage at that time – it would have provided the first high-resolution imagery available on a commercial basis. The Greensat team also examined how imagery products and services could be supplied to small companies, groups and even individuals, doing a study on low-cost ground terminals, which would have cost $5 000 each in 1990/91 – or, at the then exchange rate, some R15 000.
More expensive options were also developed. The idea was to penetrate markets not then served by the earth observation industry. However, international co-operation was essential to achieve all this – not only was the South African market too small to support such a programme, but the satellite could also only be effective and successful as part of a global system, and the funding to establish such a system and launch the satellite did not exist.
As only the US and Europe could provide the necessary markets and financing, the Greensat team specifically sought partnerships with US and European companies. A number of leading US and European companies showed definite interest in the proposal, but then things went awry.
In the meantime, Armscor had been split into two completely separate organisations, with all the arms-manufacturing companies and units, and what was left of Houwteq, formed into the new, still State-owned, Denel defence industrial group. It seems that Denel’s then senior management believed that enough money had been spent on Greensat and demanded that any foreign partner pay the entire cost of developing the total system and launch.
Naturally, these potential partners refused, expecting Denel to pay part of the costs. Denel was, apparently, cash-rich at the time, but the top management did not understand what they had in Greensat, and chose to invest in systems more familiar to them.
Moreover, they shrouded Greensat in a blanket of secrecy that was unnecessary, inappropriate and counterproductive for a civilian space project.
It made negotiating with possible foreign partners more difficult, and aroused international suspicions about Greensat’s bona fides.
Finally, a deal was almost concluded with a leading German company, only for the Germans to pull out at the last moment.
With this setback, the programme came to an end – by then, no other likely partners existed, and South Africa could not go it alone.
Many in the South African aerospace industry believe that the US pressured the Germans, with the aim of wrecking Greensat.
But if the Americans drove the final nail into Greensat’s coffin, that coffin was built, and Greensat placed in it, by the then top management of Denel, through their refusal to help fund any joint venture and their obsession with secrecy – Engineering News has been told that this secrecy accounted for 50% of the reasons Greensat failed. No figures have ever been released as to the cost of the RSA rocket and Greensat programmes, but it is likely that it was in excess – probably well in excess – of R1-billion.
The final result? A museum exhibit.