Freelance Journalist


Failure to launch - Australia is one of the last developed nations without a space agency

(This article originally appeared on The Vocal)

A space agency has the power to inspire like few other organisations. Director of the Hayden Planetarium and everyone’s favourite space guru, Neil deGrasse Tyson, goes so far as to claim NASA inspired some of the biggest cultural movements and inventions of the 20th century. 

Neil deGrasse Tyson conducts a physics experiment

That’s precisely why the United Nations started World Space Week (October 4 - October 10) -- to celebrate the essential work of the world’s space agencies. Ignoring the fact that China’s Tiangong-1 space module is hurtling uncontrollably to Earth, the last fortnight alone has seen incredible developments:

Australia, however, isn’t invited to the party.

We are one of two Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries left in the world without their own space agency. The list of have-nots has been slowly whittled down over the years -- New Zealand being the latest OECD nation to establish its own agency -- and yet, Australia has continued to stay out of the space race.

Without a space agency of our own, the developed world is quite literally leaving us behind.

So, what gives?

To participate in space activities, Australia has to lean heavily on allies overseas, exchanging services to get at their data. Speaking on RN’s The Science Show, Warwick Holmes, former avionics engineer at the European Space Agency, says this reliance on “piggybacking” the satellites and instruments of other space agencies has allowed the Australian government to justify its neglect of the space industry.

“Australia is probably one of the most prodigious users of space data per capita in the world… we are great users of space data but we don't create any of the instruments or the satellites which actually give us that data.”

Essentially, Australia is that friend who needs to crash on your couch for a couple of days and ends up living out of your lounge room for years.

Shaun and Ed take a tea break

Only, that friend also happens to be one of the wealthiest people in the world.

According to Holmes, our freeloading approach to space is exacerbated by a shady military facility 20kms south of Alice Springs termed Pine Gap. Run in partnership with the US, this facility is so classified it’s illegal to take photos of it and, unsurprisingly, little is known about what’s carried out there or why.

What we do know is that, for playing their part in this mysterious partnership, the Australian government receives free satellite data and intelligence from the US, meaning even less incentive to get up off that couch.

It’s all about those space dollars

This isn’t even about planting Aussie flags on far-off planets or setting up sausage sizzles on Mars -- it’s about making money. It’s a pretty common misconception that NASA is focused solely on pioneering space exploration or leaving Matt Damon on Mars. The truth is, a major function of any space agency is to drive the economy by observing Earth from space. It’s the lucrative “space economy” that has prompted so many other (better) nations to create their own space agencies over the years.

Beyond the worst premise for a Star Trek sequel ever, a “space economy” basically refers to any space-related activity that generates revenue for a country, such as using satellite technology for “transport, natural resource management, environmental and climate change monitoring”, or even, “entertainment”.

According to The Space Report 2016, the space economy totalled “$323 billion [USD] worldwide” in 2015 and it’s growing fast. In a piece for The Conversation, Andrew Dempster, director at the Australian Centre for Space Engineering Research, says that number is forecast to hit $1 trillion over the next 20 years.

And yet, no matter how much money there is out there in the final frontier, the Australian government just won’t spend the money to get us in the game, meaning we only captured a meagre 0.37% of this multi-billion dollar market in 2014.

It’s not a completely hopeless situation, though. Space is literally everywhere and we don’t necessarily need a space agency to get Australia into orbit.

Take Canada’s lead  

One alternative route to the stars is through NASA’s European cousin, the European Space Agency, or ESA.

Though a rarity, ESA have opened their doors to a couple of countries outside Europe’s borders in the past. The first was Canada, back in 1979, who shunned the political antics of the US to get cozier with Europe.

Australia is the other. We’ve been offered a membership to the ESA on three separate occasions, most recently in 2002. Predictably, our Federal Government declined them each time.

Despite this  history of resistance, the offer still stands and, while joining the ESA would cost Australia an annual membership fee of $20 million, we would receive far more revenue in return. Canada, again, is the prime example. Between 2009 and 2013, Canadian companies earned ESA contracts worth about $123 million, yet saw a reported 2.96 times that value in returns.

And the rest is up to you  

Otherwise, there’s always private industry.

In recent years, space has become a battleground between traditional space agencies and private industry. It’s a star war that Michael Smart, Professor of Hypersonic Aerodynamics at the University of Queensland, calls “Old Space vs. New Space.”

The world’s big space agencies tend to focus on expanding existing projects through existing channels like the government, making their activities expensive and slow. “New Space”, on the other hand, is driven solely by private industry. The emphasis here is on return on investment, allowing speedier turnaround times and reduced costs.  

With the costs of entering space falling fast, any entrepreneurial-minded Australian now has the opportunity to get their space-related ideas off the ground, no matter how small they may seem. Sydney start-up, Quberider, are the perfect example: a couple of fresh-faced university students who aim to launch a nanosatellite containing research kits from 40 Australian schools into orbit.

Speaking to The Australian, Quberider founder, Solange Cunin, says commercial activities are shifting the space industry in Australia’s favour.

“Commercial companies are now doing the bulk of the work that NASA once used to do and with technology connecting the whole world there’s no reason why Australia can’t get involved.”

And there’s no reason you can’t get involved, either.