Australia finally has a space agency -- here's why it's about time

Space launch systemNASA’s Marshall Spaceflight CenterArtist’s rendering of an aerial view of SLS liftoff. The first flight test of NASA’s new rocket has been delayed from 2017 to 2019.

Australia, welcome to space. The club many would say we should have joined decades ago.

Among OECD countries, only Australia and Iceland did not have a dedicated space agency. We were in a group that counted Luxembourg, Malta and Vatican City among its members.

New Zealand, Indonesia, North Korea – even Nigeria has a space research agency.

Of course, having a space agency and launching rockets are two different things. At last count, 72 countries boasted a space agency; only 14 of them have the capacity to launch a rocket.

Of those 14, four have the capability to send humans into space, and just three can potentially land something on the moon.

That means there’s a stark reality waiting there for anyone who wants to take a rational view on what it means to have an Australian Space Agency in practical terms. Which is: sorry Aussie kids, you won’t be rumbling out to the back of Woomera in the back of a space truck and piling into rockets for a trip to Mars any time soon. If ever.

The good news? Fortunately, no one who ever achieved anything in the space industry grew up being told their ideas were completely rational.

Cobber-nise the stars

As of yesterday, July 1, 2018, the chances of Aussie kids living their dreams of exploring space have risen dramatically. Because the ASA is alive.

The beginning of the end of the long journey came around the start of last year when the Space Industry Association of Australia (SIAA) released a white paper calling for a national space program.

That was backed up by former NASA astronaut, Australian-born Andy Thomas, who wrote to defence industries minister Christopher Pyne arguing that the sector was essential to Australia’s security.

In July, the Turnbull government took action, launching a review into whether Australia actually needed its own version of NASA.

The review was led by former CSIRO boss Dr Megan Clark, and although its findings weren’t due until March 2018, by September it was clear that an agency would be the first step.

“The global space industry is growing rapidly and it’s crucial that Australia is part of this growth,” acting minister for industry, innovation and science Michaelia Cash said at the time.

“The agency will be the anchor for our domestic coordination and the front door for our international engagement.”

The push to “Cobber-nise the Stars”, as the first vandal on the Australian Space Agency Wikipedia page put it, was under way:

Picture: ROFLZe

Things got real in the May 2018 budget, when $26.5 million was allocated to the ASA and on May 14, it got another $15 million to kick-start things, and its first CEO in Clark.

“Its primary goal is going to be to grow the Australian space industry and to do that we need to partner internationally, coordinate nationally, and to ask ourselves why we are doing that?,” Clark told ABC News.

“And it’s really to improve the lives of all Australians and I think to inspire Australians with what Australia really can do in the space industry.”

The argument over that question – “Why are we doing that?” – will be debated for the rest of the time such a thing as an Australian Space Agency exists, so get used to it.

As it stands, even without an ASA, there still is a local space industry. Apparently, it’s currently worth around $4 billion and employs more than 10,000 people.

What do they do? Plenty – the same as Australia’s astronomy experts, scientists and researchers have done for the past 50 years. We’ll look at them in a bit.

But New Zealand has a rocket

New Zealand has produced a total of zero astronauts.

It can be justifiably proud to have produced Sir William Pickering, who left Canterbury University College for California to attend Caltech in the late 1930s and eventually became the director of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

And in January, Kiwi startup Rocket Lab launched three satellites into orbit from a launch pad in the Mahia peninsula on New Zealand’s North Island.

Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket launching from New Zealand’s Mahia Peninsula. (Source: Rocket Lab)

That’s an extraordinary effort – a startup gave New Zealand the honour of being the 11th country to launch satellites into space.

It’s tempting to think that happened because New Zealand formed a space agency two years ago, but Kiwi Peter Beck founded Rocket Lab 12 years ago. It’s listed as a US company, is headquartered in California, and mostly funded by US companies.

The R&D funding it does get from the New Zealand government comes from a grant programme established several years before, and not linked to, the New Zealand Space Agency. Here’s its CEO Peter Beck in 2015, with another extraordinary achievement, the Rutherford rocket:

It’s the world’s first battery-powered rocket engine printed on 3D parts, developed entirely without the help of a space agency.

Here in Australia, the premium model of space innovation is at Parkes, NSW, where The Dish has been a crucial link in space exploration for 57 years.

The team at Parkes brought the first Moon landing to TVs around the world. Helped track the crippled Apollo 13 home. It has discovered quasars, half of all the pulsars, interstellar magnetic fields and the most distant objects in the universe.

The same Deep Space Network gave the world its first close-ups of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune.

Three Australian-born astronauts have made it into space – one aboard Apollo 14 and two on space shuttle missions.

In the 60s, we became the seventh nation to launch a satellite, and we have a very capable launch facility at Woomera which has supported experiments for many educational and scientific organisations for nearly 30 years.

We guided Curiosity down to Mars, and beamed its first image of the Red Planet back to Earth, as well as the pictures of Pluto from New Horizons.

Many world-leading astronomy experts have spent time at the Research School of Astronomy and Astrophysics at Australian National University.

And we were a founding member of the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Use of Outer Space in 1959.

Next year, in outback WA, we’ll start building the largest and most capable radio telescope ever constructed, the Square Kilometre Array.

And in 2025, we be able to say we helped build the world’s largest optical observatory, the Giant Magellan.

All without the help of a government funded space agency.

Yet on January 22, our national obsession for the day were headlines like this:

Picture: National Geographic

Dismissing all of the quite monumental achievements of Australia’s pioneers, the talk was all about “bringing Australia up-to-speed with New Zealand“.

Imagine being part of John Bolton’s team who discovered quasars, bunkered down in Parkes, suddenly being considered “not up to speed” with a billion-dollar funded rocket shop from the US.

For decades, arguments and articles about why Australia needs a space agency have been rolled out, considered, filed away, dusted off and rolled out again by experts and onlookers every other year only to fail to ignite the public’s enthusiasm for such a thing mainly because it seemed all NASA had done was blown trillions not getting back to the Moon.

(Interestingly, a recent study found that only 13% of a national study of 2,541 US adults believed returning to the Moon should be a top priority for NASA.)

But suddenly, while people like Paddy Neumann at the University of Sydney were showing NASA how to build an ion drive, here was all the proof we needed that we’d got it wrong, for so long. The bloody Kiwis only went and launched a rocket first.

Australians are nothing if not the planet’s finest trollbait when it comes to matters of national pride.

We have to talk about money

Let’s start with that same study mentioned above that found, despite screaming headlines about $US19 billion black holes:

  • 72% of Americans say it is essential for the U.S. to continue to be a world leader in space exploration.
  • 80% say the International Space Station has been a good investment for the country.
  • 65% believe that NASA’s role in space exploration is essential.
  • And around 63% believe monitoring Earth’s climate and asteroid threats are viable top priorities for NASA.

That’s a huge positive vote for a public office that this year has a budget allocation of $US19.9 billion to return, on a very unfair face of it, a lot of oohs and aahs to the general population.

The largest chunk of that, $US5.9 billion, will be spent on Science – Earth science, planetary science, astrophysics, and heliophysics.

Earth science gets $US1.7 billion. That’s the part that returns most of what we actually see and use here on Earth – information about navigation, weather, environment and the like.

Planetary science, $US2.2 billion, includes planetary defence, Mars exploration, missions to outer planets and other bodies.

Arguably the most important mission in 2019 will be the successful deployment of the James Webb Space Telescope. It will eat up about $US533 million in 2019 and has the strongest case for a significant ROI for the world’s astrophysicists.

It’s also just been delayed another couple of years, and if that schedule is met – which it certainly won’t be, the James Webb Space Telescope, when it gets into space, will get there 14 years after its initial target date. Expensive delays are these days considered par for the course.

NASA burns through lots of things. Picture: Getty Images

But back to NASA’s 2019 budget, where about $US4.6 billion will be spent on Lower Earth Orbit operations, which is mainly running the ISS and transportation to and from the ISS.

Another $US4.6 billion is to to be spent on deep space exploration; $US2.1 billion of that will go toward the SLS.

Ground operations and safety and security eats up the other large chunk of $US2.75 billion.

Clearly, you could go a long way down that rabbit hole. But the point of looking at NASA’s budget right now, today, is purely to put any calls of an Australian Space Agency being a waste of money into some sort of context.

The first budget flagged for the ASA, the princely sum of $41 million.

That’s Aussie dollars.

Spread over four years.

NASA will spend more than twice that in 2019 just on environmental compliance.

In fact, NASA is spending double the Turnbull government’s four-year budget for the ASA, right now in Australia. It’s forking out $110 million to help add two more antennas to the three existing at Tidbinbilla.

But New Zealand launched a rocket.

Space agencies are last decade

There’s an app for training to be an astronaut.

It’s called Space Nation Navigator and it was developed using expertise from NASA and a Houston based company called Axion which plans to build the world’s first commercial space station.

Space Nation Navigator itself was launched by another private space company, Space Nation, which in 2017, broke the Finnish crowdfunding recording by raising €1 million in just 43 minutes.

It owns the first private “space lab” on board the International Space Station and if you download and get through all the Space Nation Navigator tasks, you’re one step closer to being the first Space Nation astronaut to experience Lower Earth Orbit next year.

At least, that’s the plan, and apart from the app input, it’s a plan that’s developing just fine without the need for a Finnish space agency.

Finland instead chooses to be part of the European Space Agency and regulates launch activity in Finland through the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Employment.

Still, even that is a much better arrangement than not having a space agency at all. Space Nation spokesman Hjörtur Smárason was born in Iceland, which now, thanks to the launch of the ASA, is the only OECD country without some form of space office.

“Personally, I think it would be foolish not to have a space agency,” he told Business Insider.

“Although Iceland is such a small economy we can still provide the best training grounds for astronauts, we can still have startups developing cube satellites, or we can make use of our expertise in geothermal energy and greenhouse production of food to develop the best solutions for utilising geothermal energy on Mars and growing food in green houses in the cold Martian climate.

“There are so many solutions that need to be developed for the new space era and it will be a big part of the economic growth of the future.”

Space Nation’s Hjörtur Smárason and former NASA astronaut Gregory Johnson. Picture: Space Nation

Right by Smárason’s side is a real NASA astronaut, Gregory “Box” Johnson.

Last month, Box joined Space Nation’s effort, starting by ratifying that the astronaut training app is the real deal.

He hasn’t even got through all the missions himself yet.

“I am working through them,” Box, a retired US Air Force colonel who delivered the Dextre robot arm to the International Space Station, says.

“Some of the missions are challenging to me and I absolutely need to concentrate to complete them in the correct way.

“I think they uniquely introduce the skills astronauts need to possess in a very fun and interesting way.”

Finish the missions and you could be one of 100 app users chosen for a real astronaut training camp. Make it to the final 12 and you’re into an intensive 10-week training program.

And of those 12, the best performer will become the first Space Nation Astronaut and get a free trip to space in 2019.

Sound familiar? If it does, then you’re aware of similar crowdfunded efforts to get to space which have failed, horribly. But Johnson’s involvement with Space Nation is the ultimate tick of approval for a private startup based in a country with a semi-official space agency run by a guy raised in a country with no space agency.

Johnson says it’s important for a country to have a space agency, but “it doesn’t mean that you have to have your own space ships”.

“There are now a good number of private companies ready to offer those services. To me having a space agency is simply showing that a country is aware of the new space era and bears the responsibilities and opportunities this era brings.”

‘Personally, I think it would be foolish not to have a space agency’

It is, however, essential to hold on to the dream that arguably the most kids had at one point, only for it to be the first they gave up on.

“That dream is much more realistic today than when I was a kid,” Johnson says.

“Once we grow up, we start to think more practically. And to be honest, the chances of being selected as an astronaut are fairly remote considering the numbers who apply.

“Historically fewer than 600 people have been to space and there are still over 150 countries that have never had a representative in space. That’s changing now and space is becoming available to everybody, regardless of nationality, education or economic status.

“And that is one of the reasons I joined Space Nation, because they are making this dream tangible for anyone with access to a smartphone.”

Johnson says the reality of being an astronaut can be some way removed from the fantasy.

“One still needs to do laundry, go to the toilet, prepare the food,” he says, adding that on the ISS, he swapped roles between a plumber, a mechanic and a maid.

Gregory Johnson with Space Nation applicants at a search and rescue training mission in Iceland. Picture: Space Nation

But nothing could prepare him for “the sensory overload of launch”.

“The Space Shuttle leapt off the ground like a wild animal,” he says. “Sitting on top of a thousands of tons of propellant, one can only imagine the uncommon energy and forces in the launch experience.”

And the amazing experience of living and working in zero gravity and looking at our beautiful planet from above.

“That is a feeling that exceeds most fantasies,” he says. “You have to experience it to truly understand it.”

Count the ways

If you think you’d rather training that’s a bit more meaty than a smartphone app, you might consider International Space University.

It’s been headquartered near Strasbourg, France, since 1987, and if you think such a thing as “Space University” is a little bit funny, this guy doesn’t:

Buzz Aldrin has been Chancellor since 2015, and pretty chuffed about too.

About 200 students graduate each year with qualifications to be space industry engineers, lawyers, scientists, and yes, astronauts. At last count, 13 ISU alumni had made it into space.

Another alumni is Andrew Barton, who gained his Master of Space Studies in 2002.

It led him to work at the Australian Space Research Institute, the ESA, Google, and most recently, as the director of technology strategy, launch and US operations with Fleet Space Technologies.

New Zealand launched a rocket.

Fleet was founded in Adelaide in 2015 by Flavia Tata Nardini, fellow engineer Dr Matthew Tetlow, entrepreneur Matt Pearson, and no one from a space agency.

It’s part of a growing local industry that specialises in creating nanosatellite networks to connect sensors and devices worldwide.

Fleet’s money came mainly from a $5 million funding round that included Blackbird Ventures and Atlassian co-founder Mike Cannon-Brookes’ Grok Ventures. By the end of this year, it hopes to launch its first two nanosats – built in California – on an Indian Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle and on a SpaceX Falcon 9.

That’s a very quick turnaround for a startup to get into space. And cheap.

But despite its rapid success, Nardini says she has learnt there would be an important role for an Australian space agency to help other startups navigate the complicated processes and regulations Fleet was lumbered with.

“We cannot wait for launches, we have to move fast,” she told InnovationAus recently.

Fleet CEO Flavia Nardini. Source: supplied

Barton says life would have been a lot easier if Australia had created a space agency 20 years ago, and not just for the likes of Fleet.

“There would likely be Australian scientific instruments onboard NASA or other nations’ satellites, or even perhaps our own, orbiting Mars or other planetary bodies,” he says.

“Also, Australian companies would be part of the global supply chain for hardware and software for satellites.”

He cites the example of US based company OneWeb, which will soon launch a constellation of thousands of LEO satellites to serve broadband internet to remote areas all over the world.

“This system is completely different and far more capable than the two satellites forming part of Sky Muster in Australia’s NBN, which are in geostationary orbit, much higher above Earth,” Barton says.

“The OneWeb system is essentially a $US3 billion international infrastructure project that should have a large impact on many people and businesses in rural Australia. It’s too late now, but Australian companies could have played a significant role in the OneWeb supply chain if a government agency was in place to support them to undertake the pre-commercial design and development work as was done in France and other countries.”

Barton says it’s also important to remember an ASA is not just about rockets and Moon landings.

“The equipment and technical skills needed to serve the space industry are also valuable in many other sectors, particularly advanced manufacturing and software,” he says.

“Having sustainable, supported expertise in the space industry would allow Australia to have better commercial diversity and agility to better serve and fuel industries of the future.”

Gas it

New Zealand launched a rocket.

Back here in Australia, at the University of Sydney, Patrick “Paddy” Neumann built a propulsion system without any space agency help at all. He says it is at least a 30 per cent improvement on anything NASA had built.

Neumann got so far down the road with the Neumann Drive that it will be tested aboard the ISS some time after mid-2019 when Airbus gets its “Bartolomeo” platform attached to the ESA’s Columbus module.

He has a much more grounded view of where the ASA’s real value lies, once we get past the grumbling about how much it will cost.

“What these people don’t realise is that this will allow more cost-effective data purchasing for weather and geophysical satellite data, and that there will accrue numerous benefits for Australians,” he says.

“In short, no-one is going to have the agency work as they believe it should.”

Neumann admits the existence of an ASA would not have affected the conceptualisation of the Neumann Drive a lot, “but it would have changed things with regards to development and application”.

“Having an agency with international ties, even a small one, gives everyone a single point of contact for Australia, and allows more efficient introductions for Australians to enable better market fit,” he says.

Making it so. Picture: Horst Burkhardt

More importantly, an agency developed with Australian ingenuity and not “bogged down by the strictures of an agency that grew up in the Cold War” has an opportunity to ride the wave of change sweeping through the industry right now.

“Developing Australian capabilities to meet Australian needs is now more possible than ever, with the increasing capability of space hardware permitting much smaller launch mass, meaning more cost-effective imaging, sensing and communications capabilities,” Neumann says.

The chances for Australian launches will be good, with companies already working on it such as Gilmour Space Technologies, Southern Launch and Equatorial Launch Australia.

Astronauts? Maybe, depending on what level of coordination we can work at with international partners.

Whichever way you slice it, Neumann says the future for Australian space is “bright”.

“And with a federal agency to coordinate things, Australia can once more take its place at the forefront of human exploration,” he says.

Stirring stuff.

The science of reach for the stars

On July 19, there’s a gathering of “cultural visionaries, brand leaders and pioneers” at a conference in Sydney called FOREFRONT.

The hype is justified. Pay $500 and you’ll be one of 300 attendees who get to meet people like YouTube’s head of music marketing, will.i.am’s brand director, and the guy who makes sure Adidas’s streetwear is on message.

You might even meet Elizabeth Jens, who this year was listed as a Game Changer by Vogue.

Elizabeth Jens, space success story. Picture: Supplied

Jens, 33, works for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, where she designs propulsion systems for small space vehicles.

For the past few years, she’s also been working on cold-gas system to support science projects on NASA’s next Mars rover, due to be launched in 2020.

Jens is holding true on her dream to become an astronaut, which she has held ever since primary school in Torquay, Victoria, when an Apollo astronaut walked in and showed the class pictures of himself standing on the Moon.

She didn’t have a space agency. She had that one visit from the space man, a dad who gave her a book called Mission to the Planets, some special teachers who never laughed at her, and the support of some local Lions and Rotary club members.

And she went to International Space University. Now she’s thinking about which planet humans might want to live on next, and how to make that happen.

Enabling humans to live on Mars is one part of Jens’ ultimate ambition. The other is finding life.

“There’s been a lot of focus on whether we’ll find life on other planets and really looking at Mars but maybe we’ll find a whole new form of life on (Saturn moon) Titan,” Jens says.

“Enceledus is fascinating, Europa, there’s really reasonable potential for finding something there. Finding life, whether it’s our current understanding of the tree of life or even more scientifically interesting, finding there’s a whole new concept of life would be even more of a breakthrough.”

‘There’s this idea that just because you want to do something like go up into space, you must be caught up in a fantasy’

Despite it being a red rocky desert plagued by planet-sized dust storms, Jens says she has “met a number of people” who’ve signed up for the one-way trip.

“One of the reasons I think there is this focus on Mars is that they find the idea of terraforming Mars kind of interesting.

It is pretty barren, desolate stuff, but there’s evidence that just beneath the surface, there is water, there is maybe life and it is a destination that we can set a base up on and explore with relatively low risk for our missions.

In the foreseeable future, we could land humans on the surface and maybe start to become a multiplanet species. It’s somewhat attainable and I think that’s what pulls to people.”

And in 2020, Elizabeth Jens from Torquay will have something on her CV that even Buzz Aldrin can’t produce – a project in operation on another planet, when she gets to watch her cold gas system deployed on the rover arm.

An artist’s impression of what NASA’s 2020 Mars rover will look like. Picture: NASA/JPL

She calls it “a very fancy overqualified shop assistant” that essentially puffs gas to clear dust from samples so the rover’s instruments can analyse it.

“I’m going to be pretty pumped,” she said.

Hopefully by then, Australians will realise they can be proud of their achievements in space regardless of whether they have provided a platform somewhere remote off which to launch a rocket.

The next generation

$41 million might not be a lot of money to spend on a space agency. But it is probably the perfect amount of money to risk spending on a Canberra office and yet another hive of public servants, because a door with a sign above it and 20 staff is pretty much all you’ll get for $10 million a year.

So let’s hope the ASA is the type of modern space agency that doesn’t dream of sending Aussies to Mars, because instead of guiding us into a $300 billion future, that could send the country broke. There’s nothing quite like a government department when it comes to finding ever more inventive ways to ensure a $50 million satellite launch costs $250 million and take 10 extra years to get off the ground.

We, as Australians, know this because we all carry the same broken NBN dream in our hearts to tell us it’s true.

In fact, NASA just came through a serious grilling by the US Government Accountability Office which flagged a relentless inability to meet deadlines and some eyewatering cost overruns in the past decade.

And when you’re hit with a 25% budget blowout on such a thing as a Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope, that’s a billion dollars. Extra, on a single project.

We still loves pictures of massive space telescopes being built. Picture: Getty Images

NASA has been launching rockets for 60 years. Elon Musk’s SpaceX has been in the game since 2002. Six years later, it built the world’s first privately funded liquid-fueled rocket to reach orbit.

16 years later, it can launch rockets for around $50 million, which is a fifth of what it costs NASA to do the same. Just this weekend, a SpaceX rocket boosted Melbourne’s La Trobe University space ambitions by sending its earth-sensing imaging spectrometer to the International Space Station.

Cheaply, because as of last year, that very private company can now reuse its rockets. In 60 years, the US government space agency never even considered it.

But if you’re looking for one of life’s great wake-up calls, there is nothing quite like talking to an astronaut.

An astronaut whose perspective has been changed in the most unique of ways, like Box Johnson. Or even, as I once had the honour of meeting and spending five minutes with, the premium model himself, Buzz Aldrin:

I have now. Picture: Facebook

It’s profound. You shake hands with someone who left the planet to walk on an entirely different piece of rock and return alive, and then return to your desk and for the rest of the day – week, year – life is duller than you ever remember it being. I was so deflated I sulked myself out of even writing about it.

You think you really should have held onto that dream. But eventually you bury yourself in work again and convince yourself that you actually made the better decision and if you ever think about that meeting again, you think “well, Buzz had NASA, didn’t he?”

Australia now has the Australia Space Agency.

Yes, we’ve done very well without it up to now, thank you very much.

Yes, the Elon Musks and Hjörtur Smárasons are now here with the drive, money and technology to perhaps show there’s a better way to get the job done.

And yes, Andrew Barton, Elizabeth Jens and Paddy Neuman and all the CSIRO’s unheralded geniuses have been changing the future of space travel without the faintest hope of backing from an Aussie NASA.

But they all know that while it will take a lot, lot more than $41 million worth of shiny Canberran bums to get an SLS full of Aussies on the good ship to Mars, a sum total of zero of all those people who succeeded without the help of an Australian Space Agency say it will be money wasted.

Because $41 million is a small price to pay to let those Aussie astronauts in waiting know their dreams are legit.

“There’s this idea that just because you want to do something like go up into space, you must be caught up in a fantasy,” Jens says.

“There’s now a clear point of contact to reach out to now and that immediately makes things a lot more straightforward.

“A lot of the things I struggled with was trying to work out what a reasonable path into the industry was and now we have an agency a lot of the focus will be on education and there will be this clear point of contact.”

Dare to dream, kids of Australia. Picture: Spacex © 2016, Flickr, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 License.

Barton calls it “a beacon for aspiration”.

“A space agency sends a strong message that would inspire young people growing up in Australia to consider and believe that space is a legitimate industry that they can contribute to.”

And if Hjörtur Smárason’s vision for the very near future is right, we’re going to need those dreamers.

“In about five years time, we expect to be sending the first people to space hotels in orbit around Earth, and even providing the initial astronaut training to the staff to these space hotels,” he says. “Because it will not just be rich tourists going there, they will need someone to prepare their espresso, make their bed and serve the smoothie.

“In 10 years time we expect to be seeing the first permanent base on the Moon being in construction.

“And again, we plan to be the company providing channels and training for the people who will later be working in both construction and services on the Moon.”

The first real highlight of your child’s space career could very well be seeing that $41 million sign above the door in Canberra.

And that’s a small price to pay for them to live well, prosper, and cobber-nise the stars.

One more thing

If it really means that much to you, Australia had a space agency before New Zealand.

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