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The Commercial Heavens: The New Australian Space Agency

Politicians have been clambering to the top extolling something that has yet to exist. Scientists are claiming a job boom that has yet to transpire. Much fantasy and speculation dominate the creation of Australia’s Space Agency, an organisation that remains inchoate despite being launched on Monday by the appropriately named Michaelia Cash.

Former CSIRO boss Megan Clark has found herself heading the zygotic agency. “You ask yourself – why are we doing that? And it’s really to improve the lives of all Australians and I think to inspire Australians about what Australia really can do in the space industry.”

Space has been turned into patriotism, cash and incentives; and there is a sense that Australia has been lagging. No matter, suggests Andrew Dempster of the Australian Centre for Space Engineering Research – the time is ripe for celestial exploitation. “It seems clear there is a real appetite on both sides of politics for an agency for our times, that embraces the excitement being generated by ‘Space 2.0’ – that is, commercial entities, low-cost access to space and avoiding some of the baggage of the older legacy agencies.”

This point was more, rather than less iterated by Innovation Minister Cash, who launched the ASA in Perth on Monday with a disconcerting, grating enthusiasm that should have terrified scientists. “Space technologies are not just about taking people to the moon, they open up opportunities for many industries, including communications, agriculture, mining, oil and gas.”

The report from the Expert Reference Group behind Australia’s Space Industry capability is every bit as enthusiastic as Cash, seeing space as having very terrestrial effects (“a key contributor to the growth and diversification of the Australian economy”). “No longer restricted to government agencies and budgets, space has become a fast-growing and fiercely competitive commercial sector”.

This is a field of estimates and projections, of wistful glances at budgets, investments and outlays.  Clark provides an elastic forecast: “We think we can add another 10 to 20 thousand jobs to 2030.” The Australian federal government put the value of the Australian space sector in 2015-2016 at $3.94 billion. Of that, a dominant 80 per cent of contributions came from the private sector.

Australia remains a curiosity in one fundamental respect: a country continent so ideally placed for observation yet indifferent historically to having its own agency, ever in the bosom of NASA and an annex of broader power goals. Subordination to other space programs has tended to be normal, most notably the role played during the Apollo 11 moon walk by such radio telescopes as “The Dish” at Parkes.

Now, money-greased collaboration is the watchword. Other agencies and entities are being sought. The market of competitors has swollen the field: the China National Space Administration, the Indian Space Research Organisation, and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, have made Australian entrepreneurs and officials envious and eager.

The head-over-heels delight that Australia is getting its own space agency has not masked that old problem with organisations of national prestige. Nothing is ever too big to be diminished by the pettiness of political dispute. Disputes and disagreements have arisen. Parochialism tails the scientist’s endeavour, and bureaucracy risks insinuating itself into the experiment and initiative.

Some cities and states feel more suited to host the bulk of the ASA’s incipient activities; sites are being fought over with playground brutishness. The premier of New South Wales, Gladys Berejiklian, has dreams of ASA being placed in precinct known as “the Aerotopolis”, which will feed both her narrow understanding of science and tailored electoral ambitions. “NSW has the dish (at Parkes) and we should be the home of space innovation.”

Clark has pitched for the national capital, Canberra, a point that has been seen as eminently sensible. “We need to engage internationally and also to co-ordinate nationally and part of that activity (is) best to be centred on Canberra.” Well noted, though the Australian capital has shown a certain tendency to outsource its public service jobs to other regions, a point that might risk a resource deficiency.

The last time a local Australian effort was made to supply administrative form to the exploitation of space came in the 1980s. The Australian Space Board remained a project in miniature, an office hiding within the Department of Industry, Technology and Commerce. After ten years, it vanished with little trace, killed off by bureaucratic stasis and boredom.

Other centres – NASA, which runs 11 research centres, and the European Research Agency, which has nine, have eye-popping resources that the ASA can only dream of. “This is not a model,” claims Alice Gorman, Director on the board of the Space Industry Association of Australia, “that is sustainable.”

Despite the question of sustenance and sustainability, the picture now may well be different, though hardly in the broader name of science per se. The Australian Strategic Policy Institute has defence on its mind in Australia establishing “a sovereign space industry” to make the country “an active space power”. The ASA also promises to be a mercantilist organisation for the skies more than the radical, insatiable discoverer of the galactic frontier. This is no time for scientific curiosity for its sake. Pocket books and bank balances rather than petri dishes are the order of the day.


12 comments

  1. Max Gross

    Place your bids now: who should be the first LNP MP rocketed into deep space?

  2. John Higgins

    Michaelia Cash … she could report back without the aid of a microphone shattering radiowaves across the Universe

  3. Spindoctor

    Didn’t Joe Bjelke Petersen promote a Space port for Cape York Eons ago and doesn’t this subject resurge every election? And now Shrieking clueless Cash is pushing another figment of the imagination after her knuckle dragging climate science denying, fossil fuel promoting rabble party has decimated the nations scientific community, sacking world leaders in their respective fields in CSIRO, biotechnology, Agriculture, space science, the Met Bureau, Universities, government R&D, Science divisions and educators.

  4. king1394

    We don’t even have a dual track railway line between Sydney and Melbourne yet. Still with Cash suggesting that space industries will “open up opportunities for many industries, including communications, agriculture, mining, oil and gas.” What’s not to like? They will be pumping oil on Mars and growing corn on the moon in no time.

  5. flogga

    “the zygotic agency” … nice turn of phrase

  6. Wam

    Since Gillard, oakeschott and windsor were rudded and rabotted there has been an enormous waste of space in canberra.
    This space wasting agency has poured billions into nothing beyond the words ‘jobs and growth’. The words ring with the screeches of cockatoo cash are echoed by the murdoch reading boys and bludgeon the eardrums into submission.
    Still cash’s 20000 jobs will be a boom to the workes from countries with FTAs .

  7. Glenn Barry

    I’ve only got one question in all of this, can we send Michaelia Cash up on a one way mission

  8. David Bruce

    I was wondering if we could send all our parliamentarians to Mars and video Question Time each day? Eventually there will be a way to get them back alive…

  9. Glenn Barry

    In other news a life eliminating black hole has been discovered on the other side of the universe.
    In reaction, Malcolm Turnbull has proposed legislation banning life destroying black holes from immigrating to Australia.
    Mr Turnbull took great pains to reassure listeners, placing responsibility with Peter Dutton, the minister in charge of home affairs, to ensure that any life destroying black holes attempting to enter Australia illegally will be detained in the off shore processing centres on either Manus or Nauru.

  10. Zathras

    Despite early experience in the satellite launching industry at Woomera Australia long ago – like the abandoning of early semiconductor technology – Australia has a dismal history of lost opportunities.
    If we can’t make a fast buck, we don’t bother with it.
    Much of our groundbreaking research into solar panels went overseas due to a lack of local support.

    Winding back the CSIRO was another example of the contribution of politicians with no sense of long-term vision and I would be surprised if this doesn’t turn out to be just another convenient photo opportunity that leads nowhere.

  11. jimhaz

    Did anyone tell the LNP there ain’t no coal in space!

    I’d say the field is way too competitive for any major investment to bring any sort of value…and it won’t cost much to put a satellite into space. In 20 years time I can’t see the big money area of space mining bringing many jobs to Oz. – why would they deposit mineral from space in a land so far away.

    Perhaps however there are some southern hemisphere related opportunities that I do not know about.

  12. Michael Taylor

    Did anyone tell the LNP there ain’t no coal in space!

    Now that was funny, jimhaz. I’ll pay that.

    But just imagine the travel allowance!

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