Australia’s history in space places nation in prime position

Despite the recent formation of the Australian Space Agency, Australia has a long, storied history of supporting both the local and international space industry, as Karl Rodrigues, the ASA’s executive director of international and national engagement, recently discussed.

When the government announced the formation of the Australian Space Agency earlier this year, the nation took what many thought were its first steps into a global industry that was taking off with increasing commercial competition between the likes of SpaceX, Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic replacing the cumbersome, bureaucratic behemoths like NASA and the European Space Agency.

Australia, however, has a long history of pioneering the space industry, ranging from being an early nation to launch a satellite (in conjunction with the UK) into orbit, to a pivotal role in supporting the Apollo missions during the height of the space race.

"Space, I think is fair to say, is the future, and that's really what it means. It's the future of innovation, it's the future of business, it's the future of the human race. It's something that we've always looked up, we've always seen something, that is bigger than us, we've always wondered what that's like, and so back in the '60s we had that opportunity to actually touch the heavens and then go and start to explore new worlds," Rodrigues said. 

When explaining the role Australia's new space agency will play, Rodrigues said, "Our purpose is to grow and transform a globally respected sector here in Australia that lifts the entire economy, and we do that through strong international and national engagement, and in doing so we hope to inspire and better the lives of all Australians, that's what we're here to do." 

Australia's history of engaging in and supporting the global space ecosystem has paved the way for the nation to engage with commercial and governmental partners around the world.

"Two weeks ago we signed our first MoU with the French Space Agency CNES. We've got a couple more coming through in the next couple of weeks, but the purpose of those is to openly engage with our international partners and to say, 'Look here, we're here in a serious context as Australians. We now want to engage in the missions, in the projects, in the initiatives that everyone is working on'," he said. 

"So we've been there from the beginning and we've been there throughout all of the missions that are of importance that you here in the press. NASA has its earth station here at Tidbinbilla, Parkes, etc. ISA has a ground complex over in Western Australia, they've had it there for 15 odd years." 

The role the nation plays goes beyond MoUs with key industry partners, Australia's position as a world leading research nation, with highly respected academics and scientists plays a critical role in both the development of a domestic industry and supporting economy and the greater integration into the growing global industry. 

"Our scientists are highly respected throughout all of the research institutions and all of the agencies around the world, but one of the things that we have been missing is this co-ordination point, and that's one of the purposes of the agency being brought into existence," Rodrigues said.

"So the current industry base at the moment is roughly around about $3-4 billion of space-related revenues and product, and there's about 10,000 people in the actual space related industry here. So we're looking to grow the space economy to around about $12 billion. [In] 20 to 30 years I think some of the global projections, and depending on which kind of study you pull down, I think they're expecting this to be somewhere around about a $2.5-3 trillion industry on a global scale. And so currently I think it's about $400 billion, and I might have my numbers a little bit wrong at the moment, but currently Australia is only around about 0.8 per cent of that."  

As part of the 2018-19 budget, the government is investing $41 million over four years to establish and operate Australia’s first-ever national space agency. The government is also investing more than $260 million to develop world-leading core satellite infrastructure and technologies, including better GPS for Australian business and regional Australians, and improved access to satellite imagery.

The Space Agency’s focus will be on fostering international space partnerships and opening the door for local businesses to compete in the global space economy, helping to drive job growth, with initial priorities including: 

  • Communications technologies, services and ground stations;
  • Space situational awareness and debris monitoring;
  • Positioning, navigation and timing infrastructure;
  • Earth observation services;
  • Research and development;
  • Remote asset management; and
  • Developing a strategy to position Australia as an international leader in specialised space capabilities. 

The Australian Space Agency is working to transform and grow a globally respected Australian space industry.

The full podcast interview with Karl Rodrigues, executive director, international and national engagement, the Australian Space Agency, will be available shortly.

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