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Space, the final frontier: The opportunities and challenges Australia faces

woomera rocket launch
Robert Brand recently discussed the opportunities and challenges for Australia's Space Agency

Robert Brand has successfully bridged the divide between aerospace engineering and next-generation communications, and has been recognised as one of the nation’s leading space entrepreneurs, with several major space projects underway that will transform Australias burgeoning space industry. 

Robert Brand has successfully bridged the divide between aerospace engineering and next-generation communications, and has been recognised as one of the nation’s leading space entrepreneurs, with several major space projects underway that will transform Australias burgeoning space industry. 

Having spent over 40 years in the telecommunication sector, Brand has extensive experience and an intimate understanding of the world of communications and space technologies, and the scope for synergy and development in these individual sectors.


In the latest instalment of On Point, Brand discusses the opportunities and the challenges facing Australia's Space Agency, raising questions about the direction and role of the organisation in an increasingly congested market and, of course, the ever eccentric Elon Musk's seemingly relentless pursuit of commercial space flight and the human colonisation of Mars. 

Phil Tarrant: Today we are, pardon the puns, and I'm sure there's going to be plenty of them through this podcast, but we're going to shift up a gear and move into the space sector. And as we all know, our Australian government announced at the budget in May a chunk of money to go into the establishment of Australia's own space agency, which is very exciting. I watch with interest and it's quite entertaining how a lot of people on LinkedIn and organisations that are quickly changing their titles to also include space as well as defence and aerospace.

Today in the studio, someone who is synonymous in Australia with the private space sector. I've got Robert Brand in the studio. Robert wears a couple of different hats and we'll cover a couple of them today. One is he's a manager or the chief technology officer for PlusComms. Also, he is with a business, a startup called Project Thunderstruck, which you may have heard of before. 

So, Robert wears a couple of hats. One is, he's manager CTO of PlusComms. He is also behind an emerging start-up called ThunderStruck Aerospace. Just a quick brief on Robert. Arguably, Australia's leading space entrepreneur and an aerospace engineer and innovator. At the age of 17, Robert was involved in support for Apollo 11 in Australia, with the feeds from Honeysuckle Creek and the Parkes radio telescope.

He supported almost every mission from Apollo 11 to STS-1 and a minor support role in the shuttle flight up to 1985. He worked at the Parkes radio telescope in support of Voyager's Uranus encounter, and ESA's Giotto mission, I hope I got that right, to Halley's Comet. He was instrumental in finding and repairing faults in critical ESA systems at Parkes that had eluded ESA staff for six months. His success was hugely significant, and ESA requests his presence during the Giotto encounter to back up this staff. That's a pretty impressive run sheet. So, you know a few things about space. You've been looking upwards for a while, have you?


Robert Brand: Definitely in the telecommunications side, that's where it all started to gel that there was a business that really needed to happen. So yes, we moved from telecommunications alone to maybe repurposing old dishes to actually create a network very much like the NASA DSN or ESA networks for tracking around the solar system.

That's still in play with PlusComms, but we branched out into other areas such as everything from stratospheric airships to launching, But we'll talk about that a bit later. I was on work experience with the international carrier, OTC [Overseas Telecommunications Commission] at the day. It was just the only carrier that did international work. And NASA had picked them to have the control room for the NASA gear at the Paddington terminal of OTC in Sydney. Something went wrong and a lot of equipment got blown up only weeks before the mission.

All the people who would never have let me duck in the door of that room. We wouldn't have been allowed anywhere near it, all of a sudden they're running around trying to get new equipment in and everything else. So, I got grabbed by the scruff of the neck and told "you can terminate, can't you? Get in there and start putting on connectors and terminating cables and everything else". Although, anyone could have done it. The fact that I did it inspired me to certainly greater things in my life.

Phil Tarrant: So, take me back to the Apollo 11 mission. What do you remember about it?

Robert Brand: I wasn't there when it happened. I was back at school, at college and basically sitting in front of a black and white TV set with about 100 other people watching it. But it was very nice to know that all that stuff was going through the cables I terminated, and hoping very much so that nothing would black out all of a sudden.

It was a case of, it's that's crazy stuff. I was so excited just to have helped because when these astronauts did come through Sydney for Apollo 11, they were just so far away. I went and had a look at the parade, and they just whizzed past and that was the end of it. And I thought, well, that's life. I might see them like that, but I'll never be equals with them and things. But these days, with all the conferences I do and internationally, a lot of these guys are now close friends. The moon walkers; I have friends that just think that what I'm doing is fantastic because after they went to the moon, they got sidelined. Their only gig really was to promote themselves, and that's where they were left in space.

You have people like Buzz Aldrin looking for relevance with supporting Mars missions and trying to be relevant. But I have a very different thing. I'm actually very excited by the technology and very involved in creating new technologies with space. They all look at me and go, how come we're not doing that? So, it's a funny old world.

Phil Tarrant: So, Robert, we're in an interesting part where when you look at the history of Australia's involvement with space, there's a certain nostalgic. romantic view coming up from the '50s, and the '60s of the great unknown. Then you were of exploration, and we've gone out and we've landed a man on the moon, and we have multiple people at any given time circulating Earth in the space stations. 

I really want to get your understandings or your insights on this transition from exploration and the romantic appeal of space to now, it is a commercial entity that can be a major revenue driver for organisations. Where do you sit with all this? You still like the romanticism of space, or you actually see there's good money for people to be made to be part of space?

Robert Brand: Look, I guess NASA will be continuing to do the exploration with deep space stuff. Sending people to Mars is on the cards right now - I'll still be alive anyway when it happens.

As far as the future is concerned, it's all about Mars, and asteroids and so on. So, there'll be a lot of financial money tossed into that from NASA, and the government, but they won't be doing the basic flights, they'll just be paying for the taxi rides up to the space station. But then you get the likes of the mining companies who want to go out and mine asteroids themselves, and they don't want to wait around for NASA. So, there's a lot of activity there. There was a bit of an early start with a couple of companies coming in. But the technology wasn't ready. I'm concerned about Elon Musk's grand ideas of giant spaceships and going to Mars. So far, he's been on track with what translates from his ideas to commercialisation.

He almost went bust in the early days, but just pulled out of it and managed to get a really good space company going. But I do remain concerned that he's there deciding his own way forward, and it could end up being the end of SpaceX. Because commercialisation doesn't necessarily mean success. It means a lot of expense that someone's got to pay for, and if you don't have customers, that's the end of the story. So, you can either keep somehow tossing money into all of this stuff, or you can be successful and that's what I'm all about with this. If my company's going to get involved in the space sector.

Phil Tarrant: So, in terms of trying to find the space sector, the space industry, this is Australia's third shape, where does space start and begin? Is what you were talking about there. What we're talking about there is a much more cost effective solution to get the same application for utility, typically done from space.

Robert Brand: Well, the point I want to make is that space is not necessarily the solution for all things telecommunications. People are looking to space and low earth orbit and everything else, but they're not necessarily saying the best solution. It does worry me that some people are looking to launch hundreds of satellites to cover Australia, but effectively the world, they can use it in other places. But there are other technologies which could easily end up replacing a lot of what we're doing. We've got to be very careful. And then there'll be competition here in Australia.

I guess space starts at about 100 kilometres. It's basically that's what's defined as the start of it. But there's not much difference between the 25 kilometres. The air gets pretty thin up there at that stage, but we just agree that it's 100 kilometres. And that's where the space agency will be looking to work.

What I'm doing with the strato-drone is basically a CASA type thing. We're outside of ... We have to pass through a space that's modern, and we have to look at things such as radar transponders. But once we get into the higher altitudes, we're on our own. It's just that we can live up there, and we've got to make sure we don't bump into anything else as much as they don't bump into us.

It's [the Australian Space Agency] about 50 years late is the way I see it. We should have been marketing. Air space agency will be more a marketing tool. We won't be launching deep space missions like NASA does. Each country defines its own area of what their agency will do. India, their agency launches craft, but we won't be. We'll be basically just promoting it, and trying to get a bigger market share.

Phil Tarrant: So, missions to Mars, you mean a human mission?

Robert Brand: Again, I disagree with the way Australia has gone about it, but I'm just one person. The basic problem I see is that we have put about three things forward that we're good at, and I'm just looking at sensing, and GPS and basically bringing data back from space. Those sorts of things we're good at. And that's the Australian focus. The government has said, that's where we will focus, that's where we will do most of our support. Now, we have a space agency, we're yet to see its true colors as to whether it'll support everything equally, or whether it'll support things that the government has already said, "OK, these are the priorities."

So, that mission is interesting because it does all of a sudden create big opportunities again in defence. But in the food processing area, very big opportunities in general that defence also likes to have sterile water and things like that for their troops. So again, that connection. What we're doing though, is looking at the shockwave treatment of food that's come from all of this work. So, we'll be spending some time with the right backing from the food industry, test sterilising water with shock waves.

I think they need the ability to control launches of spacecraft and so on. And there's a couple of companies gearing up including mine. I believe that we need to have an Australian ability to get things into orbit when needed. If there's conflict and things get thin on the ground and other countries say, "Oh, we want to launch stuff." Then Australia might be waiting in a very long queue to be able to do it.

My company is looking at a way that we don't need to have a launch site. Basically, it'll be launched from an aircraft, potentially even a Defence aircraft. And it can be flown to wherever we want it to fly. Maybe up closer to the equator, international waters, and let it rip up there. Again, not worrying about a lot of the issues that would normally occur if you were flying out of a piece of land. In other words, masses of land put aside in case something blows up on launch will be so far off shore that nothing could make it back and be a potential problem. We just need some clear water, and some clear air space and it's all go.

So, we're looking at a very low cost, very nimble way of launching very rapidly should we need to. And we're looking at basing that somewhere in NSW on the western side of the Blue Mountains. But we'll have our offices on the eastern side of the Blue Mountains. But that's why I've chosen to live in the Blue Mountains, a bit closer to space than down in Sydney.

Listen to the full podcast with Robert Brand here.

Space, the final frontier: The opportunities and challenges Australia faces
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