Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Lost in Space

By Guy Nolch

Australia’s space industry has been adrift in a vacuum of national neglect for more than 20 years, but that is about to change.

It’s an exciting time for anyone who dreams of worlds beyond our own. Since the last issue of Australasian Science we’ve seen Cassini’s heroic death plunge through Saturn’s rings and the detection of gravitational waves released from the collision of two neutron stars (see p.6). Australian astronomers have played their roles in these events by collaborating with international colleagues and hooking into the data generated by phenomenal new observing facilities abroad and in space.

Australia may also be gearing up as a key player in the development of astronomy projects as large as the Square Kilometre Array, but Dr Lee Spitler of Macquarie University says the wider space industry “has largely been operating as a grassroots movement across a small number of companies, university groups and the defence sector”. In space no one can hear you scream, and Australia’s space industry has been abandoned in a vacuum of government indifference for two decades.

In 1987 the Labor government created the Australian Space Office to coordinate and commercialise the sector. Some of the big plans floated were a space port on Cape York and the re-establishment of the Woomera rocket launch facility. However, only 9 years later the incoming Howard government dismantled the ASO.

Since then it’s estimated that the space industry has grown by 10% per year and is now worth $420 billion each year globally – but only $3–4 billion per year in Australia. This is despite Australia’s history as the third country to construct and launch a satellite 50 years ago, and important observing roles in NASA’s Apollo program. Even now a radio dish just north of Perth tracks every European Space Agency launch and sends instructions to ESA’s fleet of spacecraft.

After being lost in space for 21 years, the Coalition government has now announced plans to re-establish a national space agency. However, the formal details of the proposal remain nebulous. The government won’t determine the space agency’s charter until next March, when a review of Australia's space industry capabilities, chaired by former CSIRO chief Dr Megan Clark, tables its report.

Even then, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has said the agency will be “small”. We’ll have to wait until next May’s federal Budget to find out how much he’s prepared to back the space industry to contribute to the government’s “Ideas Boom”.

While the space industry will be holding its breath until the government breathes some oxygen into the existing vacuum of support for the sector, they’re excited by the opportunities that will soon be within reach. For a start, the space agency would be able to coordinate Australian expertise, establish formal agreements with other nations, and establish initiatives encouraging education and training, research, innovation and business development.

Not only will our brightest lights be able to shoot for the stars, but STEM students will see opportunities to launch exciting and stable careers in the space sector without having to move abroad.

Guy Nolch is the Editor and Publisher of Australasian Science.