Space looks up down under

Fifty years after the launch of Australia’s first satellite, WRESAT, the government is making a new commitment to space. (credit: IAC 2017)





This week, the center of gravity of the world’s space community has shifted to an unfamiliar location: Adelaide, Australia. The city is hosting the 68th International Astronautical Congress, a week-long meeting that brings together representatives of civil and commercial space organizations—military space is largely neglected—for planetary panels and technical paper presentations on a very broad range of topics. (This year, that includes a return appearance by Elon Musk at the end of the week to provide an update on SpaceX’s Mars plans that he announced at last year’s IAC in Guadalajara, Mexico.)

A customary opening panel session at each year’s conference is one with the heads of major space agencies from the US, Russia, Europe, China, India, and others. The host nation of the conference is also often included on the panel, regarding of the size of its space agency: last year, the head of Mexico’s space agency appeared on the stage with the major spacefaring nations when the conference was held in Guadalajara. That wouldn’t be possible this year, though: Australia doesn’t have a space agency.

But it will. At the conference’s formal opening session Monday morning, after a theatrical opening session that included aboriginal songs and a young ballet dancer soaring through the cosmos, Australian government officials took the stage to make an announcement.

Sen. Simon Birmingham, the Minister of Education in the government, noted that the federal government in Australia was in the process of a review of the country’s space capabilities, formally known as the Expert Reference Group. That review started months ago, and is not scheduled to be completed until perhaps early next year, which seemed to indicate the country would not use the conference to announce the formation of a space agency or other major policy.

Birmingham said that what the review had found so far was enough for the government to make a decision. “While there is more work to be done in this review, from the extensive consultation process to date, one point is overwhelmingly clear: the case for establishing an Australian space agency is compelling,” he said.

“So I am pleased today to announce that the Australian government will be establishing a national Australian space agency.” Even before he could finish the statement, the audience—which included many Australians but also people from around the world—broke out in applause.

The government also published a statement announcing the decision. “A national space agency will ensure we have a strategic long-term plan that supports the development and application of space technologies and grows our domestic space industry,” Sen. Michaelia Cash, the acting Minister for Industry, Innovation and Science, said in the statement.

There was no shortage of congratulations, in that opening statement or later conference sessions, for the announcement Australia—one of the few major industrialized nations without a space agency—would finally stand one up. “First and foremost, I want to say how pleased I was to hear the announcement this morning for an Australian space agency,” said Robert Lightfoot, acting administrator of NASA, during the heads-of-agencies panel. “I think that is awesome.”

“From the European Space Agency’s perspective, of course we are welcoming this very much,” said Jan Wörner, director general of the ESA, during a press conference later in the day. He suggested that the new agency consider becoming an associate member of ESA, much as Canada is. “The door is open.”

Space advocates in Australia, including in the country’s small but growing space industry, had long sought an agency that would centralize and organize national space activities.

“The planning for this Congress has coincided with a renewed enthusiasm in this country for the potential that space development offers for the future of our nation,” said Michael Davis, chair of the Space Industry Association of Australia, in statements at the conference’s opening ceremony. Creating the agency, he said, represented “Australia’s decision to participate as an equal member of that [international space] community.”

In a panel later Monday, Davis said he believed the government decided to establish the agency to help grow the country’s space industry. That industry, he said, is valued at $3–4 billion Australian (US$2.4–3.2 billion) a year, which accounts for 0.8 percent of the global space economy.

“We know as a country—as an advanced, middle-sized country—our share of the world economy is much greater than 0.8 percent. So we used that statistic in order to say to the Commonwealth government that there is great potential to grow our industry to achieve our fair world share,” he said. “The proposition of the economic and social benefits of investment in space is very much the driving factor behind the government’s decision to support the national space agency.”

But the announcement of an Australian space agency came with few details about it, beyond the fact that the country would create an agency. There was no information about when the agency would start work, how it would be organized, what its budget or other resources it would be, who would lead it, or even exactly what the agency would do.

Birmingham, in his speech announcing the agency, suggested it would take on a regulatory and coordination role. “This agency will be the anchor for our domestic coordination and the front door for our international engagement with so many of you across the world’s space industries,” he said.

Prior to the IAC, Jan Drobik, minister-counsellor for defense, science and technology at the Australian Embassy in Washington, hinted that an Australian space agency, if established, would focus on such issues.

“There’s not a single point of contact if you want to do space operations in Australia,” he said during a panel discussion last week in Washington on international cooperation in orbital debris mitigation. He contrasted that with the support the government of New Zealand is providing for Rocket Lab, the small launch vehicle company that operates there. “It’s made us come back and think.”

The Australian government got plenty of advice for its nascent agency in IAC sessions Monday. “Space is a giant frontier, and there’s a lot that you can do,” said Lisa Callahan, vice president and general manager of civil space at Lockheed Martin. “So my recommendation is to start small and figure out what you think you’re the best at.”

“My recommendation to Australia in terms of a space program is, first, design a space agency for the future,” said Mohammed Al Ahbabi, director general of the UAE Space Agency, itself a new agency. “Think about the future. Predict space technologies.”

“The challenges with respect to national space programs are just fantastic. There’s a ton of opportunities that we can do, and of course there’s always limited resources,” said Sylvain Laporte, president of the Canadian Space Agency. “Putting in a sound governance system that will allow the space agency to make the right decisions, prioritize what it should do, and to make sure that it can make the best pitch possible to politicians to get as much funding as is required for this country to invest in space I think would be a good first step.”

Whether the country takes that or other advice regarding its national space agency remains unclear. But many Australians at the conference seemed simply relieved that, after years of effort, the government had finally committed to creating a space agency, and would worry later about exactly how it will be established and what it will do.



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