Australia’s national space agency will be up and running from July, but the federal government is yet to decide where it will be based as concerns over its level of funding continue.
Innovation Minister Michaelia Cash unveiled the government’s response to its expert review panel on the domestic space industry on Monday in Western Australia, confirming that panel chair and former CSIRO boss Dr Megan Clark would lead the agency in its first year.
The government said it aims to triple the size of Australia’s domestic space industry to $12 billion by 2030, in the process creating up to 20,000 new jobs.
“We have an extraordinary opportunity to increase our share of the growing global space economy. Space technologies are not just about taking people to the moon, they open up opportunities for many industries, including communications, agriculture, mining, oil and gas,” Senator Cash said.
“An Australian space agency will support the long-term development of space technologies, grow our domestic space industry and secure our place in the global space economy,” she said.
The agency would operate be operating from 1 July, and be based initially out of the Industry department in Canberra.
One of Dr Clark’s first tasks will be to decide where the agency should be permanently based, with the Western Australian and South Australian state governments lobbying heavily on the issue, while NSW and Victoria have also thrown their hat in the ring.
The space agency has been given four key responsibilities: to support the develop of Australia’s space industry, coordinate domestic activities, engage with stakeholders to identify opportunities to create a globally competitive space industry, and to facilitate international space engagement.
The agency would also oversee the legislative arrangements for Australia’s civil space activities to ensure these are in “Australia’s national interests and align to our international obligations in space”.
In the first six months of operation, the agency would provide to government an investment plan outlining the costs and benefits of an ongoing Space Industry Development Fund.
The federal government confirmed in September last year that it would back a national space agency, with the expert review group tasked with developing a blueprint for its operations. This report was handed to government at the end of March.
This report has now been publicly released, along with the federal government’s official response. The government has supported or noted each of its nine recommendations.
These included that the agency’s strategy give priority to Australia’s areas of strength like communications and positioning technology, along with emerging technologies like artificial intelligence and that it works closely with international agencies and companies.
The report also called for a “dedicated, ongoing and whole-of-government statutory agency”, and that the government provides “ongoing, core operational funding to the agency to enable its establishment and effective operation”.
In its response, the government said it would consider establishing a statutory basis for the agency after a review of its operations within four years of its establishment.
In the report, the expert review group sets out an “ambitious strategy to triple the size of Australia’s nascent space industry”.
“Our ambitions extend beyond our national challenges and opportunities. Australia’s future in space is as a trusted global partner, playing an important role in ensuring safe and secure operations in space, and strengthening the international laws and regulations that apply to military and commercial use of space,” Dr Clark said in the report.
It recommended five key pillars for the agency:
- Competitive advantage
- One voice, one door
- International engagement
- Grow and develop
- Communicate and inspire
According to the Opposition, the report “highlights the challenges that face the agency even before it has begun”, and shadow innovation minister Kim Carr said that states have now been pitted against each other.
“The government’s response fails to give the agency the certainty it needs by not enshrining its work, structure and objectives in legislation,” Senator Carr said.
“Labor is concerned that the Liberals will use the establishment of a space agency as an excuse to engage in marginal seat pork barrelling, pitting states against each other as possible hosts, rather than seeking their collaboration in the national interest,” he said.
“The development of an Australian space industry is a national endeavour. It requires the active participation of companies, universities, workers and scientists across the nation.”
“Any suggestion that one state should take the lead over another could sabotage the agency at its birth. Labor has made our position clear. An Australian space agency must be a national endeavour, with state-based nodes as required.”
Last week’s federal budget allocated $26 million in funding over four years for the establishment of the agency, with a further $15 million on offer from 2019-20 for investment in specific space projects.
Some in the Australian space sector were hoping for a figure higher than this, with concerns that the current funding level would restrict the agency’s operations and prevent the industry reaching its full potential.
“We’d all hoped for more money, of course. The real challenge was always going to be, and remains, to use all the political, social, infrastructure and talent capital we have as a nation to lift our participation in global space exploration missions and the emerging space 2.0 value chain,” Delta-V Space Alliance founder Tim Parsons told InnovationAus.com.
Saber Astronautics director Dr Jason Held was a member of the expert review group and said while he has “mixed emotions” about the funding announcement, what’s done with it is what’s important.
“It’s not the size of the wallet but how it’s spent. If that wallet is spent in the country, using local labour and trusting our technical expertise we have, then we can do very good things,” Dr Held told InnovationAus.com.
“That said, if you look at the budget, the government announced $300 million, but $260 million or so is on Geoscience Australia projects. None of those projects are really being spent in Australia, all of that will be in the US. It’s not a good sign.”
“I think this is the government’s way of saying, ‘look, we don’t know if this is going to be a success or not, but we’ll give you a little bit of money to start up and see if you can make something out of it’. It’s up to us as a community to step up.”
It’s also expected that the private sector will contribute funding and support to the space agency, Dr Held said.
“NASA is trying to commercialise and it’s painful for them because they’ve been around for so long. If you’re starting from scratch then we have a chance to do that,” he said.
“Private investment would be one area where we could very quickly level up. If you’ve got no money on the table then private investment is really the only way to go.”
Australian space pioneer Andrea Boyd said the funding would be enough to get the agency off the ground.
“It’s ideal to kickstart the agency, enable outreach for Australia to propose key international partnerships and it will save the nation an immense amount of money annually by consolidating space spending from 17 different federal departments and agencies down to one single agency,” Ms Boyd told InnovationAus.com.
She said the agency should remain based in Canberra, with an engineering, research and technology hub based in Adelaide.