Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Australia’s Place in a Modern Space Race

By Guy Nolch

Australia’s space industry will have to pick sides in a new space race 50 years since astronauts first landed on the Moon.

This month marks the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon landing on 20 July 1969. While our space exploration aspirations have since expanded to crewed missions to Mars, a new race to the Moon has been gathering pace.

Early this year China landed a spacecraft on the dark side of the Moon, where it launched a robotic rover, set up a colony of silkworms, and began growing potatoes and cotton – all with the intention of establishing a permanent Chinese colony by 2030. India is planning to send an orbiter, lander and rover to the Moon’s south pole this year as a trial for sending people to the Moon within 3 years, and Russia plans to establish a Moon colony by 2040.

The renewed interest in returning to the Moon stems from the potential to extract its minerals, which would enable it to be used as a staging post for exploration deeper into space. For instance, it will be much cheaper to extract water from the Moon than to transport it from Earth, which costs approximately $1 million per kilogram. This could not only be used for drinking water and to grow food but be split into breathable oxygen as well as hydrogen for rocket fuel.

There is also the prospect of mining rare and valuable minerals and returning them to Earth. For instance, helium-3 in moondust has been touted as a key to safe nuclear energy –­ and a viable prospect valued at US$3 billion/tonne.

In March the USA rejoined the Moon race, with Vice-President Mike Pence declaring that they will send astronauts to the Moon by 2024 and establish a permanent presence from 2028. With NASA’s budget focused on its scientific program, the US is likely to encourage partnerships with a burgeoning private space industry led by technology billionaires like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos. At a meeting of the newly revived National Space Council last year, US President Donald Trump appealed to their vanity: “I’ve always said that rich guys seem to like rockets. If you beat us to Mars, we’ll be very happy, and you’ll be even more famous.”

Musk’s SpaceX and Bezos’ Blue Origin are already reaching for the stars, but there will also be opportunities for Australia’s space industry to partner with NASA and other space programs. While our industry is valued at $3.9 billion, the Australian Space Agency – established just 12 months ago – aims for it grow to $12 billion over the next 10 years. Already Equatorial Launch Australia has won a NASA contract to launch commercial rockets from an Australian spaceport in the Northern Territory next year, taking advantage of Arnhem Land’s proximity to the equator.

However, our fledgling space industry must straddle divisive national interests in an era of trade wars and technology blacklists between the nations with the largest space programs. For instance, the Australian and US governments have cited national security concerns when banning Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei from the rollout of 5G telecommunications networks, and the US has also prevented technology giants like Google, Apple and Intel from supplying Huawei.

Space will hardly be immune from these growing hostilities. “It is now an operational war-fighting domain in its own right,” warned Malcolm Davis of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute in Australasian Science last September (http://austscience.com/sep18).

While Australian start-up companies are shooting for the Moon 50 years since the tracking station at Honeysuckle Creek played a vital role in the Apollo program, the headwinds of national security look like grounding any launch to the dark side of the Moon.


Guy Nolch is the Editor and Publisher of Australasian Science.