Another federal government review of Australia’s space industry has been slammed by sections of the industry and Federal Labor as “redundant” and “too little, too late” for the local sector.
Following a growing push from members of the burgeoning sector in Australia for the establishment of a national space agency, Industry Minister Arthur Sinodinos said government had commissioned an expert committee to report back by March next year on the sector and potential policies.
“This review is timely given the current pace of change in the international space sector and advances in technologies that provide an environment that encourages commercial investment in space activities,” Senator Sinodinos said in a statement.
The latest review follows a number of similar committees and reports focusing on the Australian space industry, many of which already argued for the creation of a space agency.
Australia is one of two OECD nations that does not have a space agency, and proponents argue that such a body would help bring together the fragmented industry, and ensure that Australian spending on space activities goes to local players. They also want to stem the brain drain of space talent going overseas.
The government began a review of the Space Activities Act in October 2015, with proposed reforms from that report released earlier this year. A draft bill had previously expected by later this year, but the new review committee is now not expected to report back until the end of March next year.
Australian pioneer Andrea Boyd, who works in the International Space Station Flight Control in Europe, has also slammed the government’s inaction. She says the further review is pointless and that action is needed now to stop Australia falling further behind the rest of the world.
“Considering a space agency with another long duration group is redundant. It’s been addressed at a federal level with the 1990s parliamentary inquiry, the 2005 Space Policy Advisory Group and the 2008 Space Senate inquiry,” Ms Boyd told InnovationAus.com.
“Each time the groups found the need for an Australian space agency.”
“The 2008 Senate report wrote that space was a $290 billion a year industry in which Australia didn’t participate. It’s now a $420 billion a year industry in which Australia still doesn’t participate,” Ms Boyd said.
“It’s beyond time to start a space agency in Australia. It has taken so long because most people, including politicians, just didn’t realise how bad the status quo is and it has continued this way due to the fast political cycles, combined with Australia being an affluent country.”
This criticism has been backed up by South Australian small business minister Martin Hamilton-Smith, who said the federal government is “moving far too slowly”.
Mr Hamilton-Smith tweeted on the issue on Thursday: “Too little too late. National space agency should be in place before international space congress in SA in September. Eyes on the world will be on us…but nothing to see.”
Labor innovation spokesman Kim Carr said Australia “desperately” needs a space agency, and that government needs to act now rather than simply create another committee.
“There’s $500 billion [worth] of space work being done around the world at the moment. We want a share of that, and we want people to be able to recognise just how important space is,” Senator Carr told InnovationAus.com.
“Only two countries in the OECD don’t have a space agency: Australia and Iceland. But what are we going to have in this country? Yet another committee,” he said.
“We’re getting a big mirror out and this government’s going to look into it. We’ve got to develop our own capabilities to work in the international space community, and grab our share of the global space economy.”
Flavia Tata Nardini, the founder of space-focused IoT firm Fleet, will be a member of the government’s new expert committee, and she said it’s a positive development towards the creation of a space agency, despite the criticisms.
“[The] announcement shows that the federal government is taking the potential of space more seriously, which is exciting news for Australia. This review is a huge step forward in achieving that goal, and we’re thrilled it’s happening,” Ms Tata Nardini said.
The committee will be led by former CSIRO chief Dr Megan Clark, and has been tasked with providing advice for the development of a long-term plan to grow the sector.
Senator Sinodinos said the committee would provide the “strategic framework for the space sector that supports leadership, innovation, opportunity and entrepreneurship” by examining the industry’s current capability, its comparative advantages, possibilities for regional and international collaboration and how the industry aligns with other sectors and government.
Included in its terms of reference is the possibility for “institutional arrangements around the sector”, which will mostly likely point towards the creation of a national space agency.
Along with Ms Tata Nardini, fellow committee member Dr Jason Held, founder of Saber Astronautics, has also previously argued strongly for a space agency.
“People around the world know there’s an opportunity in Australia, but they don’t have a whole lot of faith in Australia yet because there’s no central agency,” Dr Held had previously told InnovationAus.com.
Space-focused accelerator Delta-V founder Dr Tim Parsons said that while the further delay may be frustrating, it was better to take the time to get it right.
“At the end of the day we have to get it right. If we were to move really, really fast and throw a bunch of money at it we might get some headlines but we may not get the impact. It’s a great, positive step and it acknowledges that the government has been listening to what’s been going on,” Dr Parsons told InnovationAus.com.
Australia spends about $3 billion on the space industry, but this money is mostly going towards overseas companies. There has been recent growth in local startups operating in the space, with more than 30 small tech companies raising more than $15 million in capital in the past 18 months.
Proponents for an Australian space agency are at pains to point out that the industry locally isn’t about space travel, but rather everything from satellite data and bushfire monitoring to banking transactions.
“Australia relies on satellites for daily life and pays dearly for it. Without a federal space agency, 17 different federal departments and agencies, plus every state’s GIS departments, must pay whatever the satellite owners tell them for access to all this essential data,” Ms Boyd said.
“It’s not rocket science. For Australia, space is about doing things we already do and need as a nation better, cheaper and more effectively using satellites.”
A space agency is needed to ensure government spending is streamlined and new technology is taken advantage of, she said.
Ms Tata Nardini spearheaded an open letter to the government last month calling on the creation of space agency.
“We can help shape the jobs, businesses and industries of tomorrow if we take the budding space economy, and our position in it, seriously,” the letter read.
The committee is likely to recommend the creation of a space agency, with Ms Tata Nardini reaffirming her support of this policy.
“Space has no borders, so a strategy that enables better international collaboration must be an outcome of the review. We also want more support for space-led innovation, be it satellites, rockets or deep space exploration. We believe the best way for us to achieve these things is through an Australian space agency,” she said.