Australia finally has a space agency

Among OECD countries, only Australia and Iceland did not have a dedicated space agency. We were in a group that counted Luxembourg, Malta and Vatican City among its members. Of course, having a space agency and launching rockets are two different things. At last count, 72 countries boasted a space agency; only 14 of them have the capacity to launch a rocket. Of those 14, four have the capability to send humans into space, and just three can potentially land something on the moon.

That means there’s a stark reality waiting there for anyone who wants to take a rational view on what it means to have an Australian Space Agency in practical terms. Which is: sorry Aussie kids, you won’t be rumbling out to the back of Woomera in the back of a space truck and piling into rockets for a trip to Mars any time soon. If ever.

The good news? Fortunately, no one who ever achieved anything in the space industry grew up being told their ideas were completely rational.

As of yesterday, July 1, 2018, the chances of Aussie kids living their dreams of exploring space have risen dramatically. Because the ASA is alive.

The beginning of the end of the long journey came around the start of last year when the Space Industry Association of Australia (SIAA) released a white paper calling for a national space program. That was backed up by former NASA astronaut, Australian-born Andy Thomas, who wrote to defence industries minister Christopher Pyne arguing that the sector was essential to Australia’s security. In July, the Turnbull government took action, launching a review into whether Australia actually needed its own version of NASA. The review was led by former CSIRO boss Dr Megan Clark, and although its findings weren’t due until March 2018, by September it was clear that an agency would be the first step.

“The global space industry is growing rapidly and it’s crucial that Australia is part of this growth,” acting minister for industry, innovation and science Michaelia Cash said at the time. “The agency will be the anchor for our domestic coordination and the front door for our international engagement.”

Things got real in the May 2018 budget, when $26.5 million was allocated to the ASA and on May 14, it got another $15 million to kick-start things, and its first CEO in Clark. “Its primary goal is going to be to grow the Australian space industry and to do that we need to partner internationally, coordinate nationally, and to ask ourselves why we are doing that?,” Clark told ABC News. “And it’s really to improve the lives of all Australians and I think to inspire Australians with what Australia really can do in the space industry.”

The argument over that question – “Why are we doing that?” – will be debated for the rest of the time such a thing as an Australian Space Agency exists, so get used to it. As it stands, even without an ASA, there still is a local space industry. Apparently, it’s currently worth around $4 billion and employs more than 10,000 people.

Here in Australia, the premium model of space innovation is at Parkes, NSW, where The Dish has been a crucial link in space exploration for 57 years. The team at Parkes brought the first Moon landing to TVs around the world. Helped track the crippled Apollo 13 home. It has discovered quasars, half of all the pulsars, interstellar magnetic fields and the most distant objects in the universe. The same Deep Space Network gave the world its first close-ups of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune. Three Australian-born astronauts have made it into space – one aboard Apollo 14 and two on space shuttle missions. In the 60s, we became the seventh nation to launch a satellite, and we have a very capable launch facility at Woomera which has supported experiments for many educational and scientific organisations for nearly 30 years. We guided Curiosity down to Mars, and beamed its first image of the Red Planet back to Earth, as well as the pictures of Pluto from New Horizons. Many world-leading astronomy experts have spent time at the Research School of Astronomy and Astrophysics at Australian National University. And we were a founding member of the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Use of Outer Space in 1959. Next year, in outback WA, we’ll start building the largest and most capable radio telescope ever constructed, the Square Kilometre Array. And in 2025, we be able to say we helped build the world’s largest optical observatory, the Giant Magellan.

All without the help of a government funded space agency.

For decades, arguments and articles about why Australia needs a space agency have been rolled out, considered, filed away, dusted off and rolled out again by experts and onlookers every other year only to fail to ignite the public’s enthusiasm for such a thing mainly because it seemed all NASA had done was blown trillions not getting back to the Moon. (Interestingly, a recent study found that only 13% of a national study of 2,541 US adults believed returning to the Moon should be a top priority for NASA.)

At the University of Sydney, Patrick “Paddy” Neumann built a propulsion system without any space agency help at all. He says it is at least a 30 per cent improvement on anything NASA had built. Neumann got so far down the road with the Neumann Drive that it will be tested aboard the ISS some time after mid-2019 when Airbus gets its “Bartolomeo” platform attached to the ESA’s Columbus module. He has a much more grounded view of where the ASA’s real value lies, once we get past the grumbling about how much it will cost.

“What these people don’t realise is that this will allow more cost-effective data purchasing for weather and geophysical satellite data, and that there will accrue numerous benefits for Australians,” he says. “In short, no-one is going to have the agency work as they believe it should.”

Neumann admits the existence of an ASA would not have affected the conceptualisation of the Neumann Drive a lot, “but it would have changed things with regards to development and application”. “Having an agency with international ties, even a small one, gives everyone a single point of contact for Australia, and allows more efficient introductions for Australians to enable better market fit,” he says.

More importantly, an agency developed with Australian ingenuity and not “bogged down by the strictures of an agency that grew up in the Cold War” has an opportunity to ride the wave of change sweeping through the industry right now. “Developing Australian capabilities to meet Australian needs is now more possible than ever, with the increasing capability of space hardware permitting much smaller launch mass, meaning more cost-effective imaging, sensing and communications capabilities,” Neumann says.

The chances for Australian launches will be good, with companies already working on it such as Gilmour Space Technologies, Southern Launch and Equatorial Launch Australia. Astronauts? Maybe, depending on what level of coordination we can work at with international partners.

Whichever way you slice it, Neumann says the future for Australian space is “bright”. “And with a federal agency to coordinate things, Australia can once more take its place at the forefront of human exploration,” he says.

On July 19, there’s a gathering of “cultural visionaries, brand leaders and pioneers” at a conference in Sydney called FOREFRONT.

The hype is justified. Pay $500 and you’ll be one of 300 attendees who get to meet people like YouTube’s head of music marketing,’s brand director, and the guy who makes sure Adidas’s streetwear is on message.

You might even meet Elizabeth Jens, who this year was listed as a Game Changer by Vogue. Jens, 33, works for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, where she designs propulsion systems for small space vehicles. For the past few years, she’s also been working on cold-gas system to support science projects on NASA’s next Mars rover, due to be launched in 2020. Jens is holding true on her dream to become an astronaut, which she has held ever since primary school in Torquay, Victoria, when an Apollo astronaut walked in and showed the class pictures of himself standing on the Moon. She didn’t have a space agency. She had that one visit from the space man, a dad who gave her a book called Mission to the Planets, some special teachers who never laughed at her, and the support of some local Lions and Rotary club members. And she went to International Space University. Now she’s thinking about which planet humans might want to live on next, and how to make that happen.

Enabling humans to live on Mars is one part of Jens’ ultimate ambition. The other is finding life. “There’s been a lot of focus on whether we’ll find life on other planets and really looking at Mars but maybe we’ll find a whole new form of life on (Saturn moon) Titan,” Jens says. “Enceledus is fascinating, Europa, there’s really reasonable potential for finding something there. Finding life, whether it’s our current understanding of the tree of life or even more scientifically interesting, finding there’s a whole new concept of life would be even more of a breakthrough.” ‘There’s this idea that just because you want to do something like go up into space, you must be caught up in a fantasy’ Despite it being a red rocky desert plagued by planet-sized dust storms, Jens says she has “met a number of people” who’ve signed up for the one-way trip.

“One of the reasons I think there is this focus on Mars is that they find the idea of terraforming Mars kind of interesting. It is pretty barren, desolate stuff, but there’s evidence that just beneath the surface, there is water, there is maybe life and it is a destination that we can set a base up on and explore with relatively low risk for our missions. In the foreseeable future, we could land humans on the surface and maybe start to become a multiplanet species. It’s somewhat attainable and I think that’s what pulls to people.”

And in 2020, Elizabeth Jens from Torquay will have something on her CV that even Buzz Aldrin can’t produce – a project in operation on another planet, when she gets to watch her cold gas system deployed on the rover arm.

She calls it “a very fancy overqualified shop assistant” that essentially puffs gas to clear dust from samples so the rover’s instruments can analyse it. “I’m going to be pretty pumped,” she said. Hopefully by then, Australians will realise they can be proud of their achievements in space regardless of whether they have provided a platform somewhere remote off which to launch a rocket.

$41 million might not be a lot of money to spend on a space agency. But it is probably the perfect amount of money to risk spending on a Canberra office and yet another hive of public servants, because a door with a sign above it and 20 staff is pretty much all you’ll get for $10 million a year. So let’s hope the ASA is the type of modern space agency that doesn’t dream of sending Aussies to Mars, because instead of guiding us into a $300 billion future, that could send the country broke. There’s nothing quite like a government department when it comes to finding ever more inventive ways to ensure a $50 million satellite launch costs $250 million and take 10 extra years to get off the ground.

We, as Australians, know this because we all carry the same broken NBN dream in our hearts to tell us it’s true.