Perched atop a table-like mountain overlooking the Seychelles' tiny capital, a U.S. Air Force space tracking station has been holding lonely vigil over the Indian Ocean for 25 years.
Manned by 75 Americans, it is one of nine Air Force satellite tracking stations in a worldwide network that assists in the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's shuttle operations.
"We provide communications support for the shuttles in the Indian Ocean area," the station commander, Lt. Col. Jim Mills, said in an interview.
Mahe, the main Seychelles island, is halfway between Senegal, West Africa, and western Australia, where the two nearest NASA ground stations are situated.
"On any routine day, we can be looking at some 25 satellites--but only one at a time," said Mills.
No SDI Mission
He said the station's two antenna dishes, whose weatherproof covers make them look like swollen golf balls, were used alternately to track space vehicles and relay the data to the United States. He dismissed local rumors that the station has a role in the Strategic Defense Initiative, popularly known as "Star Wars."
The Seychelles station went into operation in October, 1963, after a year of construction. The techniques and speed astonished local officials. The archipelago then was a backwater British colony engaged principally in farming coconuts and spices.
A road had to be driven through tropical jungle up the steep slopes of La Misere (Poverty) mountain. The station's components were shipped from California in giant containers.
Mail From Mombasa
Before the Seychelles international airport was built in 1971, an amphibious plane was used to bring the base's supplies and mail from Mombasa, Kenya.
The base became so important to the archipelago's developing economy that there were local suggestions in 1964 that the U.S. government should buy the whole island group from Britain.
"America could make the Seychelles the Hawaii of the Indian Ocean," said coconut plantation owner William Parsons, a member of the then-Island Council.
It never happened.
But "Poverty" mountain is now anything but poor. Hundreds of pleasant villas have been built on its flanks by both expatriate U.S. station staff and better-off Seychellois.
Several hundred local women have married Americans, creating miniature Seychellois communities in California and Florida.
"Those in California even hold a traditional Seychellois picnic every July 4," said Mills. Keeping up the tradition, he said, almost half his present American technical staff has married local girls.
Today, Air Force personnel are greatly outnumbered by the thousands of European tourists who provide these palm-fringed islands with their most important source of revenue--$75 million last year.
But the cash injected by the station is still a significant and valued source of foreign exchange.
An estimated $4 million is pumped into the local economy by the station for supplies and services purchased on Mahe, including the salaries of about 200 Seychellois employees.
An annual rent of $2.8 million is paid to the leftist government headed by President Albert Rene. The lease comes up for renegotiation in 1990.
U.S. economic assistance to the Seychelles was increased this year from $2 million to $3 million, even though most other nations in the region had their American aid packages slashed.