The year was 1966. Two European-built rockets were being launched from Woomera, in South Australia, while students from The University of Melbourne were proudly constructing Australia’s first satellite, Australis Oscar 5.
A new frontier in scientific exploration was materialising, and Australia was positioning itself for a key role.
Fifty years on, the second NBN satellite is about to be sent into orbit to provide faster Internet for families and businesses across Australia amid exponential advances in technology.
But the satellite won’t be launched from Australia; nor has it been made by Australians.
Like its predecessor, it has been designed and built in California by an American company, SSL, and will be launched from French Guiana, off the north coast of South America.
In fact, Australia’s only input into the project has been the naming of the two satellites that will carry the NBN payload — Sky Muster I and Sky Muster II — and the $500 million needed to get them airborne.
Also piggy-backing Sky Muster I at its launch in April was the home-made satellite of Argentina, a country with a GDP per capita five times smaller than Australia’s, and which has its own space agency. Indeed, Australia’s diminished status in space science is underscored by the fact that it is now one of only two OECD countries (along with Iceland), without a space agency, leaving industry insiders scratching their heads and pondering how Australia was left behind in the space race.
“Space is a dirty word in government for a whole lot of reasons,” said space policy consultant Brett Biddington.
He pointed to the Gillard Government’s release of Australia’s Satellite Utilisation Policy in 2103 as a lost opportunity; the government had lowered its vision, rejecting the Department of Industry’s more ambitious proposed space policy that had been well informed by a range of academics and industry experts.
“In a contested political environment can you imagine what would have happened had the Gillard Government announced that we were going to have a national space policy?” Biddington posed to an audience of stargazers at Melbourne University recently. “The cartoonists would have had a field day.
“You can imagine them putting Julia in a space suit with a big thing out the front for her nose and a big thing out the back for her bum, because that’s the way the cartoonists portrayed her, and that’s the sort of stuff that governments fear.”
The Satellite Utilisation Policy remains Australia’s primary space policy framework. It sets out a central goal “to achieve ongoing, cost-effective access to the space capabilities on which the nation relies now and in the future”, and outlines principles designed to achieve it.
The policy also stresses the importance of strengthening domestic co-ordination, supporting local innovation and skill development and focusing on products of national significance either for the general public or within the bounds of the military.
And it established the Space Co-ordination Committee (SCC) to help distribute projects and responsibilities to other space-related agencies including Geoscience Australia, Bureau of Meteorology and the CSIRO.
But the policy makes clear that this body is not a space agency. Essentially, it is an advisory board for the Department of Innovation.
According to the co-founder of space control software company Saber Astronautics, Dr Jason Held, the absence of a central space agency makes it almost impossible for Australia to reach such lofty goals.
“Depending on who you talk to, we spend about $3-to-5 billion a year on space ‘stuff’,” he told those attending the university’s Final Frontier Festival, hosted by the recently-created Melbourne Space Program.
“However, if you think about it, all that money that we are spending on space stuff is on importing goods and services from overseas.”
Why a space agency?
• To inspire an Australian space industry to boost the economy
• To control and improve satellite technologies
• To inspire youth involvement and interest in science and technology
• To foster local careers in engineering, manufacturing and science
• To stamp Australia as a leader in innovation and technology
• Huge costs involved and a high risk of failure
• More pressing social and economic problems to deal with on the ground
• Access already to space capabilities of NASA
• Constantly changing technologies make it hard to stay relevant
Currently, an agreement with the US means that should Australia buy a satellite from an American company, it is not able to receive the actual plans for the satellite. Should anything go wrong, it would need to be returned to the maker for repairs.
Dr Held said that this partly made sense, because it meant the Government was able to minimise the cost of insurance in a high-risk industry where $500 million of satellite could vanish with an exploding rocket.
But he added that purchasing satellites and technologies overseas meant stifling Australian industry and the development of technologies and learning locally.
“So with Saber, we went out to the United States, set a lab up in Denver (we already had a small lab in Sydney), and we started to go around selling our work and introducing ourselves,” Dr Held recounted. “And the feedback I got was, ‘Well that tech looks great, but you’re Australian. Australians don’t do space. You’ve got no space program!’
“Culturally, the Americans have a habit of buying from Americans, the Europeans have a habit of buying from the Europeans and the Australians have a habit of buying from the Americans and the Europeans. We don’t buy from ourselves, which is weird.”
This had snowballed into another pressing issue – no local jobs and a continuing brain drain. Many young engineers and astrophysicists are forced to pursue careers in the space industry abroad, meaning some of the nation’s brightest minds are being lost to international competitors. One such person is Warwick Holmes, who worked for the European Space Agency for 29 years and was only able to do so because he had the passport of an ESA member country, the UK.
“What am I, an Australian engineer, doing 22 years ago building and launching a huge rocket with the ESA?” Mr Holmes reminisced at the forum. “All the amazing things I did all that time ago, any Australian engineer could be doing today if we were to have a space agency and joined the ESA.”
“It’s time to catch up. And we need a space agency to do it. It’s not rocket science.” — Australian space engineer Warwick Holmes
Mr Holmes enjoyed a stellar career with Europe’s space body, working on the construction and launch of 10 multi-billion-dollar spacecraft, including the Rosetta Probe which made history when it landed on a comet in 2014.
“Imagine if you are interested in playing golf,” Mr Holmes posed. “Now, there are two ways that you can play golf. You can buy 100 acres of land, spend $100 million and get lots of landscape gardeners to come in, and you build the clubhouse, and you have to do all that before you hit your first golf ball.
“Or, you can join an existing club and the only money you’ll spend is the green fees and the annual membership.
“That’s what the ESA is; they’ve got a huge golf course with everything there ready to use and you can get straight on the fairway and start playing. What I’m seeing in Australia today is we are trying to build those fairways without any help and that is a very inefficient way to spend taxpayers’ money.”
Lack of money has been the prevailing argument against forming an Australian space agency. NASA’s yearly budget tops $US20 billion; the ESA relies on about $US5 billion.
But Mr Holmes claims that joining the ESA could cost as little as $20 million a year, allowing the Australian Government to kick-start a thriving local space industry that would boost the economy into the future.
“The evidence is Canada,” he told the forum. “Independent reports have shown that by investing in the ESA, they are getting $3.50 worth of value back on every dollar spent because the ESA is set up in a way that all the money you invest comes back to you for the projects that are important for your country.”
Australia is, in fact, the only country to turn down an invitation to join the ESA. The Federal Government has reportedly turned down three separate offers to join the organisation over the past three decades.
Mr Holmes concedes that these refusals are largely due to a military agreement between Australia and the US, where Australia gains access to US satellites in exchange for the use of the Pine Gap facility in the Northern Territory. However, he argues that because the ESA is a civil organisation, there should be nothing wrong with Australia becoming a member state.
“Canada shares an 800km border with America,” he added. “So if anyone was going to be scared of what America thought about joining the ESA it would be Canada. So to say that we can’t join because America wouldn’t let us is a poor excuse.”
Advocates of an Australian space agency nominate additional upsides, such as inspiring young minds to study fields that could be useful in working on local and global issues.
“We’ve got big problems on the Earth and most of these require a mixture of politics, science and engineering,” the ESA’s science advisor, Dr Mark McCaughrean, told ABC Radio recently. “So, if we can inspire kids to get into this business by what we do, cruising around the solar system, maybe they will go and help save the Earth.”
While neither major political party offered a commitment to the Australian space industry during this year’s Federal Election campaign, the Turnbull Government’s current review of the Australian Space Activities Act of 1988 has offered a glimmer of hope to industry insiders.
Next year, the 68th annual International Astronautical Congress (IAC) will be held in Adelaide, with the event’s chief executive, Brett Biddington, suggesting it offers the perfect platform for the Government to outline its vision for Australia’s future in space.
“We have had a disconnected and classified narrative in terms of space in this country,” Mr Biddington said. “But the IAC in Adelaide could be a chance for the Prime Minister to really make a difference to the future of that narrative.”
Dr Held is less confident about the Government’s role in space, saying it doesn’t matter which party is in power as the future of space is evidently commercial.
Evidence of that reality abounds. Entrepreneur Elon Musk’s company SpaceX aims to lower drastically the price of space travel through creating reusable rockets with cheaper materials, and is becoming a major force in the spacecraft market; while the MarsOne project plans to use advertising and crowd funding techniques to fund a mission to colonise Mars.
Indeed, both enterprises aim to send a manned mission to Mars within the next decade, some 20 years ahead of NASA’s estimates of when such a mission could be possible.
But according to Mr Holmes, and others throughout the industry, not acting soon could see Australia’s space industry fall too far behind the rest of the world to ever catch up to rapidly advancing technologies and innovative projects.
“It’s time to catch up,” Mr Holmes told the crowd enthusiastically. “And we need a space agency to do it. It’s not rocket science.”