Space for Innovation

Australia needs a space program.

As 2015 drew to a close, Prime Minister Malcom Turnbull unveiled the government’s Innovation Statement with a plan to invest $1.1 billion to drive an Australian “ideas boom”. Before this announcement, the government had already commenced its Review of the Space Activities Act 1998 stating that Australia is in a transition ‘to an advanced economy that cultivates and commercialises innovative technologies’ and that ‘there is significant potential for space technologies to play a role in facilitating this transition…’ It is high time Australia invested in a space program.

Australia is the only OECD country that does not have a space agency or coordinated space program. China and India both established space agencies in the mid-20th century which have contributed immensely to the countries’ technological capabilities and economic growth. Even Ethiopia has recognized the huge advantages afforded by a dedicated space program, establishing a space agency in August 2015.

Why does Australia need a space program?

In the 21st century a space program will be a key instrument for sustainable development. For the average person, the impact that space technologies have on their lives is not immediately obvious, often being hidden away behind some product, service, or app, but all of us benefit immensely every day from what space programs have brought us. We would all notice very quickly if we lost our GPS and satellite communication infrastructure, but space technology goes much further. Satellites are used for environmental monitoring, weather prediction, soil monitoring, water and agricultural management, as well as to search for ore bodies, track bushfires, and in disaster planning. This short list barely makes a dent in the complete list of important space technologies, and doesn’t even touch on the spin-offs, the technologies developed by space agencies that have found other uses and applications.

A space program will cultivate scientific thinking and technological innovation, and provide the training to engineers, scientists and students that Australia needs if we want to maximize the progress from our “ideas boom”.

A national space program will ensure that innovative ideas are exploited to their fullest by stabilizing funding to projects under its aegis. A space agency is also necessary if we are going to cooperate with other countries in the exploration and exploitation of space, since an agency with technical expertise that represents the Australian government will be in a position to negotiate with NASA, the ESA and other countries’ space agencies. An Australian space agency will even reduce the time and cost required to purchase flights on other countries’ launch vehicles.

I liked the picture of a satellite.

Out of sight, out of mind: vital technologies are operating overhead all the time.

They’re expensive. Couldn’t the money be better spent on something other than rockets?

When figures like NASA’s $19.3 billion 2016 budget are bandied around, and even a small space mission costs tens of millions of dollars, it often seems that space programs are too expensive to be worthwhile and that there are other problems we should be using this money to solve. However, put in context with other spending, a space program doesn’t appear to be so expensive.

NASA’s $19.3 billion represents only 0.5% of the US government’s spending, while the US military takes more than 15% of the total. The economic return to the USA gained from NASA’s products, patents, services, and spin-offs means that NASA more than pays its way. Australia is in a not-too-dissimilar position, with around A$30 billion being spent on defence. If we were to copy the US, we would direct around $1 billion to a space program. Australia has the money for a space program, it is only a matter of public choice and political will to divert the necessary funds. And that’s not even taking into account that space programs generate revenue for the government. History has shown that space programs are a very good investment. An Australian space program would begin to pay for itself after only a few years.

NASA’s $19.3 billion sounds like a lot less money when you take into consideration the huge range of projects NASA is responsible for. A reasonable summary of NASA’s active and on-going projects would fill a small book. They include climate and crop monitoring, satellite tracking, observational astrophysics, space-vehicle development, aeronautics, launch contracting, running a space-station and driving a nuclear-powered laser-equipped science-car on Mars. Australia is unlikely to match this commitment (at least in the short-term).

Individual space missions, even pioneering interplanetary missions, can be quite cheap when compared to other things we are willing to spend huge amounts of money on. India became the first country to successfully reach Mars orbit on its first go with the Mangalyaan Mars orbiter, which cost only US$73 million. Major blockbuster movies rarely cost less than $100 million these days. James Bond Spectre cost $245 million, the CGI movie Tangled cost $260 million, while Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides cost an eye-watering $378.5 million.

Also, we do not have to spend big money on huge projects such as shuttles and space stations like Russia, China, and the US. The UK and Canadian space agencies provide a very good model for a similar Australian organization. We don’t need to have a launch vehicle, we just need to start contributing to international space project collaborations.

A space program is not a luxury. It is a key to a sustainable future and developing scientific thinking.

We should totally build one of these any way.

As cool as it would be to have one of these, this is probably not what an Australian space program will look like.

What have we got to offer?

I have come across the belief that Australia has little it can offer the international space science community (and therefore should leave space up to other countries) disturbingly often, and nothing could be further from the truth. Australia has had a small but outstanding role in space since the 1960s, and in a field as diverse as space research, there is always something we can offer both in international collaborations and from Australia-only projects.

Universities and research organizations across the country already have some involvement in space research. We are world leaders in the development of scramjet technology, we are internationally renowned in radio astronomy and computer sciences, we are participating in space missions such as eLISA and the GRACE follow-on, we have important deep-space tracking facilities, and we have the most productive geodetic observatory in the world.

A space program also affords Australia the opportunity to focus efforts on problems that are unique to Australia. This article in The Conversation from 2013 addresses the reasons why Australia urgently needs a space program to solve our own problems and to stop piggybacking on other countries’ space projects.

Western Australian Space Centre

The Western Australian Space Centre: the site of the world’s most productive laser ranging station.

What should we do?

We need to establish a space agency with its own slice of government funding. This is necessary to produce the funding stability I discussed previously and exploit space research to the full.

The Review of the Space Activities Act needs to provide appropriate recommendations so that future legislation minimizes red tape and makes it easy for Australian agencies and research organizations to conduct research within Australia, and to collaborate with other nations.

We need to start training our students for the space sector. A huge number of brilliant STEM students are being attracted to space science at the undergraduate level, but there are too few programs and training opportunities for all but a few of them to continue down this path. Increased support for space research at all levels of education will be needed to develop and exploit Australia’s intellectual resources and drive innovation.

We need to get the public excited about space through science communication, media attention, and school programs.

The public excitement will only grow as Australia’s space program progresses. By collaborating with NASA, the ESA and other space agencies and contributing to international projects, Australia will be eligible to select its own astronauts. While Australian-born Americans have flown in space, no one has gone to space with an Australian flag on their shoulder. The media attention surrounding Canada’s Chris Hadfield and the UK’s Tim Peake show just how much public excitement is generated by space flight, and with proper science communication efforts, this excitement will feed back into greater support for space science and the benefits it has to offer.

Has anyone got a suggestion for a good name for our space agency?

This is here just because I like this picture.

WRESAT: Australia’s first satellite.

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