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Australia’s Space Agency Must Define Our Future in Space

By Malcolm Davis

Australia’s space agency needs to embrace the small, agile and innovative path of Space 2.0.

With Australia set to establish its own space agency, the question of what that organisation will do is of key importance. The Department of Industry, Innovation and Science’s website suggests that “the agency will provide international representation, support to critical partnerships, coordination of a national strategy and activities, and support for industry growth”.

In contrast to that bland bureaucratic language, popular debate often pushes for ambitious goals. Sending our own astronauts on Moon and Mars missions is a common theme on social media. While such goals encourage the next generation of space thinkers, Australia must be practical and pragmatic going forward, and ensure its space activities are fully sustainable in budgetary and political terms.

We must be aware of a number of risks. Previous attempts to develop an Australian space program have foundered due to lack of government interest and sustained financial support, as well as incoherent approaches to formulation of space policy.

There is also a perception that space is expensive to do. Mention space to political leaders, particularly in the context of human space flight, and politicians see Apollo, the Space Shuttle or the International Space Station. Big projects mean big money – look at NASA’s Space Launch System – and at that point the money disappears and dreams are torn asunder. It would be a tragedy for that to happen in Australia, yet again. Gus Grissom said it well in The Right Stuff: “No bucks... no Buck Rogers”.

The traditional approach epitomised by NASA is wrong for Australia. Instead it is better to embrace and support the small, agile and innovative path of Space 2.0.

Space 2.0 lets the private sector lead, embraces risk to foster rapid innovation, and places new technology as the driving force forward. An Australian space program based on commercial systems that emphasise the “small, many and cheap” rather than the “‘large, expensive and few” is the best path forward, whether it be satellites in orbit, the development of low-cost space launches or innovative approaches to building the ground segment.

Under the Space 2.0 model, the private sector would take the lead on developing the hardware, including Australian-built, low-cost small satellites and cubesats that can then be launched on Australian-developed commercial space launch vehicles from Australian launch sites. The objective would be a sovereign space capability, thus easing our dependency on foreign actors.

The space agency should also coordinate that industry’s activities to support the government’s space requirements and promote Australia’s role in international space science. Without an Australian space agency, foreign partners in space science have no one to contact, and are often confused by which stakeholder is responsible for any particular project.

These approaches don’t sound as glamorous as recruiting Australian astronauts yet they are vital if Australia’s next efforts in space are to be successful and, most importantly, sustained. As NASA flight director Chris Kraft noted:”Failure is not an option’. This applies to Australia.

The 2020s look set to be an exciting time in space, with rapid growth of commercial space activity leading the way to a return to the Moon by humans for the first time since 1972. The role of commercial space on the high frontier could lead to a sustainable permanent human presence off-Earth, and hopefully paves the way for eventual human missions to Mars, perhaps by the 2040s. Now we’re back to astronauts, and there is no reason why Australia cannot play a role in this new golden age of space exploration.

Yet Australia must walk before it runs. A space agency that establishes an affordable and sustainable infrastructure for Australian space activities in coming decades means that the economic benefits of Space 2.0 can be ploughed back into the expansion of an Australian space industry sector and bootstrapping more ambitious goals. We can become and remain internationally competitive in a market where we are only a minor player at the moment.

Australia must have an ambitious vision but be practical and pragmatic in getting to those goals. Getting the space agency’s charter right is the most vital step in this journey.

Malcolm Davis is a senior analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute in Canberra.