Funding earmarked by the Federal government to grow the local space sector and help Australian companies engage internationally remains “woefully inadequate” and at the “extreme low end” of what is required, according to the Space Industry Association of Australia.
Industry Minister Karen Andrews made a series of space-related announcements on Friday, with new regulations coming into effect, the first Space Infrastructure Fund recipients announced, a new statement of strategic intent, and consultations around the International Space Investment (ISI) initiative.
The ISI was unveiled in the 2018 federal budget, with $15 million allocated to help Australian space companies partner with international space agencies and “compete in the global space economy”.
The Department ran consultations on the initiative in June and July, and is expected to open applications later this year, but is yet to set a concrete date for local space companies to apply to the program..
But the recently released submissions on the ISI revealed concerns about the grants program focused on the small amount of funding allocated to it, the short application period, and a requirement that local companies have a set agreement with an international space station.
The government released a consultation paper on the scheme in June, detailing how it would provide grants to strategic space projects that generate employment and business opportunities for Australians.
Applicants would have to provide that a minimum of 80 per cent of the investment is being made in Australia for the benefit of local companies. The Department allocated $3 million for the scheme in 2019-20, $5 million in the following year and $7 million in the next.
It would have two streams of activity: the open doors stream will be for international space agency projects and the expanding capability stream will see grants going towards projects that will build capability and capacity of the Australian space sector and create jobs.
But a range of prominent figures in the Australian space sector, and a series of state and territory governments, have raised concerns with the proposed scheme.
In its submission, the Space Industry Association of Australia (SIAA) said the funding for the scheme was not enough to make a real difference.
“While the aims of the ISI are well targeted to address a significant challenge faced by Australian companies in accessing the global space supply chains, it must be stated that the current $15 million funding level over three years of the ISI is woefully inadequate to make a significant step towards achieving the growth goals of the Australian space sector outlined in the Australian Space Strategy,” the SIAA said in its submission.
“The SIAA has serious concerns about whether this funding level is sufficient to realise the goal of opening doors for Australian companies with international space agencies given their significantly larger budgets and overall size of projects in their space programs.”
According to the SIAA, up to $5 million would be required to start a new project with the involvement of an international space entity, while up to $10 million would start a significant space infrastructure project for the local space industry ecosystem with involvement from a foreign entity.
The funding on offer would only provide for two or three of these major projects, SIAA said, and this would “unlikely be sufficient to establish a proper Australian presence in the international space sector”.
“In this context the ISI funding would seem to be at the extreme low end of what is realistically required to establish a sustainable Australian presence in the international space marketplace,” it said.
While about $300 million is on offer through other government programs in the space sector, these are likely be delivered by large multinationals with little involvement from smaller local firms, the SIAA said.
“That is why a program such as ISI, which is focused on helping Australian companies to access international markets, is so important and deserves more funding to successfully achieve its goals,” it said.
“The SIAA is concerned that these constraints will drive a suboptimal program design that will in effect become a template for possible future programs. The SIAA is acutely aware that the success of the ISI program is critical both to the growth of the Australian space industry but also to the ability to secure future funding for the Australian space programs.”
Gilmour Space Technologies co-founder and chief executive Adam Gilmour also raised concerns with the relatively small amount of funding allocated to the ISI scheme, along with the requirement that applicants have a foreign space agency involved or committed to the project.
“It took us 18 months to get a space act agreement from NASA that is non-reimbursable. Given the relatively low size of the fund allocated, $8 million is not a lot of money to get a space agency excited,” Mr Gilmour said.
“We are confident that over time periods greater than six months we could get an agreement from a space agency on a number of our proposals, but feel quite certain this will be after the time period allocated in the draft for a decision on the project.”
Many other submissions also called on the government to lift the restriction that an applicant must have an agreement in place with an international space agency, including the Western Australian government.
“The stream does not appear to support a scenario where an Australian business proposes to partner with a major international space industry company, as opposed to an international space agency,” the state government said.
“Providing support for Australian businesses to partner with international space industry companies could be an important avenue to increase the impact of the ISI initiative.”
In its own submission, the South Australian government said that with the limited funding, the government’s proposed timeline may be too rushed, with plans to deploy $3 million by the end of June next year.
“While we understand the need to launch this funding initiative as soon as possible, to ensure the success of this initiative, we are concerned that the proposed timeline for the process of submitting applications will not be sufficient for the potential applications to identify the opportunities and establish the necessary partnerships and relationships,” the SA state government said.
“We would recommend that, when requested and where appropriate, applications should be permitted and received, even if additional time is needed to complete negotiations and funding proposals with international organisations and partners.”
A series of projects have already received funding under the Space Infrastructure Fund, including a mission control centre in South Australia, a robotics command and control centre in Western Australia and facilities in Tasmania to track space objects.
The Australian Space Agency last week signed a Statement of Strategic Intent and Cooperation with Australian SME FrontierSI, while new space activities regulations which streamlined the launch process came into effect over the weekend.