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As it stands, Australia is one of the few OECD nations without a space program. Considering our first attempt suffered at the hands of bureaucracy, this one may burn up on re-entry.
Next week, we will become part of a very cool club. We were members before, but then we turned out to be small-minded and boring and gave it up. But now we’re back and that is good news. I think. Let me explain. On 1 July, Australia will open the doors to its very own Space Agency. If you are quick, you can still become one of its first staff members, because it is hiring right now. Or alternatively, you can go and talk to them about investing money in your space startup. They’ve got $41 million to spend over the next four years, so there is a little bit in the kitty. But that is nothing compared to what our country’s growing “space economy” will be worth in 2030, Space Agency’s CEO Megan Clark said. $10-$12 billion dollars, and 20,000 jobs. See, now we’re talking.
Of course, Australia is a straggler in this regard. Two years ago, the world’s new black, New Zealand, beat us to it. And within two years, it made it possible for Rocket Lab, a Kiwi company, to launch their Electron rocket that placed three satellites into low orbit. From its own platform in the Mahia Peninsula, on the east coast of the North Island. Since then, it has barely drawn breath. It is in talks with NASA and the European Space Agency, who both want to work together with New Zealand. It is building more rockets, because from 2020 it wants to launch one every week. If you can afford 4.9 million US dollars, you can have your own nano satellites in space. Those small ones, whole constellations of them, are, apparently, the future in space technology. For one, they are much cheaper and much more flexible, and that means we can have more of them. In the last decade, 181 earth observation satellites were launched. In 2017 alone it was 230. And they are used for all manner of things. Defence and spying, obviously, but also to track ships, help farmers check their irrigation systems, weather, imaging, television, broadband, communications, you name it. More to the point: space brings in money. Lots of money. The Kiwis are estimating that their space industry will be worth $260 billion annually very soon.
Globally, the “New Space Agenda” is now worth 345 billion US dollars, but it is expected to triple to 1.1 trillion by 2040.
So now Australia will be in on it too. It’s about time. Out of all the OECD countries, only Iceland doesn’t have a Space Agency. And Iceland is tiny, and was never very interested in the space race. We were. From 1947, Woomera hosted the Anglo-Australian Project, which was more Anglo than Australian, with the British using the site for rocket testing and, later on, the exploding of nuclear bombs. Then, in 1967, we launched our own satellite, the WRESAT, the Weapons Research Establishment Satellite, using a spare American Redstone rocket. In doing that, we were only the third country in the world (behind Russia and the US) to put a satellite in space. Then we let the Americans take over. From the 1970s, Australia housed the largest number of NASA stations outside the USA, contributing majorly to the Apollo lunar program. NASA’s Deep Space Communications Complex, just outside of Canberra, still plays a role in exploration of the solar system. We also have allowed the US to build ground stations that support missile early-warning systems and intelligence gathering satellites and there are US ground-based sensors at the North West Cape that contribute to the space debris monitoring system.
But the most interesting thing is that we’ve had a Space Agency before. It was set up in 1987 by the Keating Government, but axed by Howard in 1996. The Australian Space Office apparently suffered a “death by bureaucracy”, as Alice Gorman, senior lecturer in archaeology and space studies at Flinders University once said. She also pointed to the fact that we’ve been leaders for decades. Not just in the way I’ve just explained, but also as founding members of the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Use of Outer Space, that was established in 1959. Australia was a big player then, but has been “missing in action” since the Space Office was abolished in the 1990s. That is why she told The Conversation that she hopes the new Space Agency will not only get enough money, but will also be independent from government, so it can fight the pen-pushers and politicians and win.
The UK is interested in setting up a satnav system that is independent of Europe’s Galileo project. After Brexit, they will need to come up with an alternative.
So let’s look at the detail. First of all, the Agency will be run by Megan Clark. From all accounts, Clark is a mover and shaker. She led the Expert Reference Group that did the official Review of Australia’s space industry capability last year and managed to get the job of being the first CEO of the most important result of that review. She has been leading high-powered organisations before, from venture capital funds to Rio Tinto to the CSIRO. Her core area of expertise is in mining, and that is interesting too, because the space industry is slated to replace the mining industry in years to come. At the moment, Australia only captures 0.37% of the existing space market. That money is mostly made by private companies, a lot of smallish start-ups amongst them. They have been growing, though, about 10% each year over the past two decades. And in January, the Australian Centre for Space Engineering Research launched a few small satellites called CubeSats from Cape Canaveral in Florida.
Like I said, Clark’s Space Agency has $41 million to spend, with $15 million dedicated to partnerships with international space agencies. It already has connections to a company that is negotiating with Indigenous landowners in the NT to start a launch site up there. If that works, that would be good news, because Jeff Bezos is looking for a way to get his Blue Origin rockets to the moon and he has invited the Space Agency to talk about collaboration. Bezos wants to start colonising the moon and thinks Australia could be very helpful there. He is not the only one. The UK is also interested in talking to the Space Agency, about setting up a satnav system that is independent of Europe’s Galileo project. After Brexit they won’t be part of Europe anymore, so they will need to come up with an alternative. So far, we don’t know yet what Clark’s priorities are and the review that she headed up is mostly full of cringe-worthy language, not facts. Of course, we are talking here about a “new paradigm”, to “inspire the nation with Australia’s contribution to human endeavours in space.” It will be “a defining domain of human enterprise”, a “reliable growth industry” and the “next generation of high-value jobs.” There is an “ambition” to “set its sights on interplanetary missions, colonisation beyond Earth, and the possibility of finding new life.” The Agency will “dream big”, the review says, but is not very clear what that means.
At least the numbers are big. Globally, the “New Space Agenda” is now worth 345 billion US dollars, but it is expected to triple to 1.1 trillion by 2040. Our own space sector economy was worth 3.94 Australian dollars in 2015-2016, with 88% of that contributed by the private sector. Of course, a big chunk of the “dream” will be fulfilled by Defence, or more to the point, by what is called the Military Industrial Complex. The Review estimates that Defence investment into the space industry will be 10 billion Australian dollars in the next 20 years. Some of that will go to collaboration with countries in the “Five Eyes” intelligence sharing alliance (Australia, NZ, Canada, US and UK). When we say “intelligence,” we mean spying, obviously. Again, the Kiwis are way ahead of us. Before their Rocket Lab, the restrictions of the International Traffic in Arms Regulations prohibited any non-US company to participate with the American aerospace industry. Now that market is wide open, for NZ companies at least. Personally, I am not a big fan of the military. In any way, shape or form. But we can’t let our lovely southern neighbours have the whole pie, surely?