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Saturday, January 29, 2022

Op-ed | Through the Legs of Giants: The next chapter in Australia’s space journey

In 1969, when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin climbed out of Apollo 11’s Eagle lander and stepped onto the moon, they were several hours ahead of schedule. Back on Earth, the moon had not yet risen sufficiently for the Goldstone dish antenna in California to pick up the video. All of America and much of the world sat at the edge of their collective seat, and there was no dish in the United States that could deliver what everyone wanted to see.

On the other side of the world, a radio antenna at Parkes Observatory in New South Wales, Australia, picked up the feed from the moon. Were it not for Australia, no one would have seen that giant leap for humanity as it was happening.

Australia’s history in space does not often get the acclaim it is due. Australians have long made important contributions to space exploration and development. The nation holds essential communications infrastructure for space missions; it has sent astronauts to the International Space Station; and it was a founding member of the U.N. Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space.

Yet, for all its successes, Australia’s modern space story is only just beginning, and its progress today is a perfect example of how a nation is leveraging its resources and capabilities, making smart investments, and implementing focused strategies to grow its space ecosystem, participate in the global space economy, and enjoy the rewards it offers for life on Earth.

SETTING THE SPACE ECOSYSTEM IN MOTION

The Australian Civil Space Strategy presents the 2030 goal of increasing the space sector’s GDP contribution to $12 billion while also creating 20,000 new jobs. The path to those goals is paved with investments.

For example, as identified in The Space Report, the Australian Government allocated $15 million (Australian or AUD) to the nation’s International Space Investment initiative to foster international collaboration in space. Geoscience Australia received AUD$224.9 million to improve positioning, navigation and timing capabilities. The publicly funded Space Infrastructure Fund is providing AUD$19.5 million to domestic space companies. And perhaps the most impactful funding (and arguably the most inspiring) comes via Australia’s contribution to our return to the moon and our longer term goal, to reach Mars.

Australia is a founding signatory to the Artemis Accords, the community of nations setting out the standards for the peaceful exploration of the moon and deep space bodies. Australian Space Agency Director-General Enrico Palermo said of the agreement:

“Australia is at the cutting-edge of robotics technology and systems for remote operations, which are going to be central to setting up a sustainable presence on the Moon and eventually supporting human exploration of Mars… This agreement will leverage our expertise in remote operations to grow our space sector here at home, while developments that come from preparing for space will make sure our resources sector keeps powering ahead too.”

As part of its commitment to this vision, Australia’s AUD$150 million Moon to Mars Initiative is a publicly funded effort by the Australian Government to provide funding for programs that support industry and the innovations that contribute to successful lunar and Martian missions. Under the initiative:

The Supply Chain Program provides grants and support for projects that enhance the domestic and international supply chains in support of space missions.

The Demonstrator Program provides for the development of space technologies.

The Trailblazer Program provides AUD$150 million in investments across five years for projects that support NASA missions to the Moon and Mars.

The results of these investments are already apparent. In October 2021, the Australian government inked an agreement with NASA to develop and build a semi-autonomous rover for exploring the lunar surface. This project is backed by AUD$50 million from the Trailblazer Program, a third of the entire funding on offer, and it will bring together government, private industry and the research community.

This is a clear example that Australia’s space ecosystem is in motion, and it is being led in large part by a space agency with two primary mandates: coordinate civil space activities across government and support the growth of the space industry. These are demanding charges for any agency, and it may be startling that the Australian Space Agency (ASA) only began operations in July 2018. Australia was among the last nations in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development to establish a government space agency, and today, ASA boasts a relatively modest budget, AUD$80 million in 2020, according to The Space Report.

While ASA’s youth may at first appear to be a hindrance, it could actually be a defining feature of its success. Australia is not burdened with legacy institutions and cultures that could limit agility and innovation, and it has a clear understanding that Australia’s success is contingent on the success of its commercial space ecosystem. The challenge is to bring the pieces of the puzzle together, and ASA is confidently at the helm.

As ASA’s former Director-General Megan Clark said in 2020, “We have the entrepreneurship, we have the ‘can do’ attitude, we absolutely have the ideas and the talent, we have the capacity to run through the legs of giants — we’ve just got a little bit of catching up to do.”

CLEARING THE PATH TO INNOVATION AND JOBS

As many nations are learning, some of the most important steps to unleashing space economy potential are updating regulatory frameworks and restrictions governing space activities. In Australia, two of the most significant hurdles for private sector innovation were prohibitive insurance requirements for launch activities and restrictive regulations around the launching and return of space technologies. The Space (Launches and Returns) Act 2018 and a series of rule changes in 2019 addressed both challenges. Insurance requirements for launch activities were lowered, and the space regulatory framework was amended to align with modern technology and the pace of innovation across the scientific fields.

These changes came alongside other industry-supporting initiatives, such as the Australian Parliament’s Standing Committee on Industry, Innovation, Science and Resources Inquiry into Developing Australia’s Space Industry. Throughout 2020 and 2021, the Inquiry has solicited input and held public hearings to learn about industry needs and identify opportunities to support space innovation, commercialization, international collaboration, and workforce development.

By virtue of these kinds of initiatives and amendments, the Australian space industry is growing fast. Notable standout enterprises include:

Gilmour Space, a launch company backed by AUD$61 million, is developing a launch system to put small satellites in orbit, and it anticipates its first commercial launch in 2022. Black Sky Aerospace launched Australia’s first commercial payload in 2018 and is the only Australian company licensed to manufacture large scale solid rocket motors. Hypersonix is focused on reaching space with hypersonic vehicles and scramjets. And while based in New Zealand, Rocket Lab is also participating in the launch system market and is a major employer of Australians in the space industry.

This steady march toward sovereign launch capabilities requires the facilities to launch, which is prompting the development of launch facilities that can accommodate domestic and international customers with varying needs. The launch service provider Southern Launch, for example, capitalizes on its location in Adelaide, South Australia, from which objects can be launched into the hard-to-reach polar orbit. Meanwhile in the Northern Territory, Equatorial Launch Australia is developing a launch site that offers a lower rate of pounds-per-dollar to orbit because it is so close to the equator.

With launch capabilities and facilities, what comes next is a surge in innovation, new businesses, new products and services, and all the jobs that come with them. There are enormous commercial opportunities for environmental data collection and analysis, for land and resource management, mining, telecoms, logistics tracking for the booming shipping industry, and crop and herd management in agriculture. Australia is on the cusp of becoming a major market for the space industry, but what about the workforce? Is it ready?

OPPORTUNITY FOR ALL IN AUSTRALIAN SPACE

Australia is geographically huge, the sixth largest country in the world, and economically powerful, with the 12th largest economy by GDP, around $1.6 trillion. Yet, its 2021 population is just 25.7 million people, and of those, only around 13 million people are in the workforce.

Currently, Australia has about 10,000 jobs to offer in the space industry, but the goal is to raise that to 30,000 in less than a decade. We know from observing other spacefaring nations that jobs in the space ecosystem are good jobs, and it stands to reason that with a small population, Australia aspires to create a workforce that is high-skilled, well-paid and competitive on the international stage. Space can deliver all of that, and if education is a measure, Australia is ready. Around 18% of the Australian workforce holds a qualification in a science, technology, engineering or mathematics (STEM) field, according to an Australian Government report.

Education is just one component of creating a space-ready workforce, but given the existing STEM talent, the Australian space industry is positioned to reskill or upskill professionals in related fields, such as aviation and robotics. Just as important is inspiring the next generation to take an interest in STEM subject matter, and space is an alluring hook to spark a student’s imagination and lifelong ambition. It is why Australia is fortunate to have the Victorian Space Science Education Centre, the South Australian Space School, and the recently opened Australian Space Discovery Centre, all of which focus on promoting STEM education through the lens of space.

Yet, a STEM background is not the only path to joining the space workforce. A thriving space ecosystem requires a range of skill sets. This includes entrepreneurship and space technology commercialization. It also includes designers, project managers, administrators, supply chain and manufacturing experts, and indeed, all of the skilled talent needed to support and grow a blossoming industry. With this, Australia’s goal of creating 20,000 new jobs through space activities is entirely within reach. No one goes to space alone, and there is room for all people in the space workforce.

Taking a step back and looking at Australia’s long space journey, it is evident that the best is yet to come. The laws and regulations are being adapted to industry needs, funding is flowing through the right channels, and collaboration between government, industry and academia is flourishing. The workforce, the companies, the focus and drive — all of the pieces of the puzzle are falling into place. On a competitive landscape packed with legacy giants (such as the United States, ESA and China) that attract all the fame and glory, Australia is catching up fast. It will, in the words of Dr. Clark, run through the legs of those giants, and it will be exciting to watch.


Shelli Brunswick is the chief operating officer of Space Foundation.

This article originally appeared in the December 2021 issue of SpaceNews magazine.

Michael Maren
Former marine biologist who likes to spend as much time in the tropics as possible, due to a horrible time I once had in Alaska. Brrrr.

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