The $150 million federal play to involve Australian companies in American missions to the moon and Mars has been cautiously welcomed by local space firms, with hopes it could be a major turning point for the burgeoning sector.
But the local industry is eagerly awaiting further details of how the new funding would be distributed before offering its full support for the announcement, made during Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s official visit to Washington.
The Coalition has committed $150 million in new funds over the next five years for Australia’s participation in the US-led public-private Moons to Mars space exploration program.
It has also signed up to join NASA’s ambitious Artemis lunar program, which aims to land astronauts on the moon by 2024.
The aim of the funding is to build Australian capabilities and position local companies as potential partners with global supply chains, ultimately to create high value local jobs.
The commitment has been welcomed by Saber Astronautics founder Jason Held, but the success of the program would be determined by details that are yet to be revealed.
“If they play it right, it could be absolutely huge for the local sector. We’re waiting to see but we are quite encouraged. It could be a big turning point,” Dr Held told InnovationAus.com.
“This is not just money from one side of the government moving to the other, it’s a real opportunity for the Australian Space Agency to provide tendering opportunities for the local market,” he said.
“The important question is how that money is going to be spent and the mechanisms around it. But in general I’m quite positive that there’s going to be some opportunities for Australian businesses to engage with some exciting projects and with NASA.”
Saber Astronautics already sells to the US government via the military, and currently does this through the company’s US lab. But the funding on offer could allow the startup to do this from Australia, and to sell product and services to NASA.
The government hasn’t yet revealed how the money will be dished out. It would potentially go to smaller companies looking to contribute to the supply chain run by bigger suppliers like Lockheed Martin and Boeing, or directly to the space agency, which would then tender for the best offerings after consulting NASA on what is needed.
“They key thing is that if Australia is putting this money down, then Australian businesses have to be the ones that are the potential beneficiaries. It should be in Australia’s interests to be broadly tendering and allowing competition to be part of that channel,” Dr Held said.
“If it just goes to US primes currently in Australia, then it doesn’t really do anything for the local market,” he said.
“But if those Australian subsidiaries bring on SMEs as part of the Australian supply and act as the project manager ensuring quality control, then that could work quite well.”
“For a long time it has been the Lockheeds and Boeings doing their own thing, and being in Australia to get Australian needs to the US. But this changes the equation considerably.
“If they are mandating for them to work with the Australian supplier, then it really does allow us into the supply chain, and in a way we haven’t before. That’s what I’m hoping for.”
Queensland tech company Gilmour Space Technologies would also look to access contracts that might be made possible by the new funding, with its co-founder Adam Gilmour also waiting on further details.
“Moon missions are high on our longer term agenda, so we have to figure out how fast we could take things to the moon with a bit more money,” Mr Gilmour told InnovationAus.com.
“$150 million is a good amount of money to do things and get the industry going – it’s real now. It’s supposed to be spent in Australia and with Australian companies, and if it does, it will be great. I want to see how they will divvy out the money, but it seems they will ask NASA what they need and go from there.”
The $150 million three times more than the entire funding allocated to the establishment of the space agency and its various other funds and grants programs.
The Coalition’s previous financial commitments to the sector had been criticised, with funds it earmarked to grow the local sector labelled “woefully inadequate” and at the “extremely low end” of what is required by the Space Industry Association of Australia (SIAA).
SIAA deputy chair David Ball said the new funding announcement is a step in the right direction, and could help local companies compete on the global stage.
“One of the big challenges that the industry has is finding the way into the international marketplace and this really helps establishing Australian companies with that path,” Mr Ball told InnovationAus.com.
“It’s still very early days to understand what the scheme will provide in terms of specifics, but it’s a step in the right direction to help companies along the way
“It’s really significant for Australian industry to have credibility in the marketplace that comes from working with NASA to establish a product, and to have the flight heritage and access to the expertise from NASA teams is fundamental to being able to enter the international supply chain.”