Fifty years ago, Australia became just the third country in history to launch a satellite into space from its own territory, behind the United States and Russia.
The Weapons Research Establishment Satellite (WRESAT) should have spelled a bigger contribution from down under in the space race, but politicians dropped the ball. Instead, they felt more comfortable in letting Australia’s bigger allies in Washington and London take control of rocket and nuclear technology and space exploration while Australian scientists stayed focused on more mundane aspects like tracking and communications.
That had its historic moments, highlighted by images of Neil Armstrong’s first steps on the moon. Apollo moon missions and subsequent exploration feats also became dependent upon the Honeysuckle Creek tracking station in Canberra until it closed in 1981, and the Australian government just inked a Space Tracking Treaty with NASA to further cooperation.
Costs and Australia’s small tax-base prohibited further development of its space program. But that is about to change, with Canberra bowing to international calls for establishment of a space agency capable of working hand-in-glove with the likes of NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA).
ESA Director-General Jan Woener welcomed the announcement, and suggested Australia could go a step further and join the ESA as a cooperative member, given this country was an associate member of the European Launcher Development Organization in the 1960s.
Australia and Iceland are the only two countries in the 35-member Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) that do not have a space agency. Australia in particular has been criticized for its lack of a coordinated approach to international space programs.
NASA’s acting administrator, Robert Lightfoot, said a domestic space agency was an excellent opportunity to increase collaboration in a global industry worth more than $320 billion a year.
“I look forward to seeing what niche areas that Australia decides they want to focus on, and I think that’ll be their challenge,” he said.
The push for a space program has grown considerably in recent years and was announced by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull this week to coincide with the 68th International Astronautical Congress being held in Adelaide. In his announcement, Turnbull cautioned that such an agency would have humble beginnings.
“It’s a small agency designed to coordinate and lead, but the space sector of course is one of enormous potential; we already have many Australian companies participating in it,” he said.
Australia’s share of the global space industry market is just 0.8 percent. Based on the U.K. experience, where a space agency was launched in 2010, Australia could lift its share of global revenue to $4.17 billion from about $3 billion within the first seven years of operation.
The industry currently employs up to 11,500 people in Australia, and the Space Industry Association of Australia says that could grow five-fold over the next two decades.
“We have longstanding ties with NASA,” said astronomer Alan Duffy with Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne. “We hope this will see an achievable boom.”
The agency’s primary objective will be high-tech jobs in satellite technology while supporting innovation in defense, telecommunications, and the environment, as opposed to building rockets or sending manned space ships to Mars.
Increasingly, this type of technology is dictating modern-day living. Without space data, the digital age would not be possible. The internet, GPS, smartphones, and communications spanning the globe are all dependent upon space-age technology and that is impacting Australian industries, whether banking, mining, or agriculture.
Details regarding the agency – including the final makeup, budgets, and location – are still to be determined. This is subject of an expert panel of inquiry, which will continue to work until March and is expected to report to the Prime Minister in July.
Experts Get Ready
The panel, chaired by Dr. Megan Clark, former chief of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO), has received more than 200 written submissions and will draft a charter for the agency.
Australia has natural geographical advantages, and its surrounding reach into the Indian, Southern, and Pacific oceans encompasses about 10 percent of the earth’s surface. These are factors that will be included in the report.
This has also already led to construction of the Deep Space Communication Complex in Canberra, which helps to provide continuous two-way radio contact with spacecraft and is managed by CSIRO. It has sister stations in California and near Madrid. Together, they provide contact with dozens of spacecraft involved with the study of comets, the moon, sun, Mercury, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, and Pluto.
South Australia is widely considered a frontrunner to host the agency, and it has conducted talks in regards to potential partnerships with the Australian Capital Territory and the Northern Territory. Initial funding is expected to be included in the May budget.
Australian astronaut Andy Thomas recently said creation of a national agency was a “no-brainer,” according to Australian Associated Press. But partisan politics is not helping. The opposition Australian Labor Party is formulating its own plans for a space agency and there have been calls for a bipartisan political approach to its development.
“It is time to make a space agency here in Australia which can decide national policy, strategies, and help develop the infrastructure for space,” Thomas said. “Because space is the modern form of infrastructure. It is as important to this country as railways were in the early development.”
His sentiments were echoed by the recently retired head of NASA, Chris Bolden, who was surprised that it had taken Australia this long to establish an agency that he said should be used to unite academia, industry, and entrepreneurs, but with government oversight.
“You’ll be able to push and incentivize the private industry to take steps that they themselves may not otherwise take,” Bolden, an astronaut with 680 hours in space, said. “Because they’re more focused on profit and very cautious about investments that they make.”
He said that was where the Australian government could step in and become a “risk-taker” adding this was akin to being “what we call in the United States the ‘anchor tenant’ for the activities of the private sector.”
With that in mind, Australia might finally take a fitting place in the global space industry, five decades after it launched its first satellite into space.
Luke Hunt can be followed Twitter @lukeanthonyhunt.