Do we need a Space Agency here in Canberra?

johnboy 6 August 2013 12

from space

Ten reasons why Australia urgently needs a space agency

By Andrew Dempster

There is a hole in the Australian public administration where a space agency should be. That was the clear lesson from the Australian Space Research Program (ASRP) project delivered at the end of June this year.

In 2008, the Australian Senate Standing Committee on Economics produced a report called Lost in Space – Setting a new direction for Australia’s space science and industry sector. It noted Australia was the only Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) country to lack a space agency and it clearly and unambiguously called for its establishment.

What was established was the Space Policy Unit in 2009, which administered the Australian Space Research Program with A$40 million over three years.

The Space Policy Unit also produced the federal government’s Satellite Utilisation Policy, released this year on April 9 – a policy in which there is no money committed, no space agency and no space program.

An international project, led by the Australian Centre for Space Engineering Research and funded by the ASRP, investigated a synthetic aperture radar satellite mission to monitor soil moisture in Australia.

We produced thousands of pages of technical reports, some even accessible to non-engineers.

Time and again throughout the project, the need for a space agency was confirmed. Here are ten reasons why.

1. To establish how satellites can solve Australia’s problems

Structural analysis of the proposed Garada satellite. ACSER

Initially, we looked at how a synthetic aperture radar satellite system could help with some of Australia’s environmental and primary industry issues.

This posited the problem the wrong way around. Rather than ask “how can satellites help solve this problem?” we asked “which problems can this satellite system solve?”

The role of pulling together stakeholders and providers is one that should rest with an agency, but in its absence, we had to engage directly with stakeholders ourselves.

Many stakeholders did not want to waste time on a university researcher, whereas if they were dealing with an agency tasked with solving their problem, their response would likely have been much more positive.

2. To lead the development of satellite programs identified as useful

Our satellite project produced an implementation case, showing how Australia could develop such a satellite, but there is no body in the government that can take this idea and make it happen.

Unfortunately, pushing that case falls back onto us.

3. To be a technically informed customer representing the government

The Space Policy Unit was rightly concerned that it took us more than a year to converge on the soil moisture monitoring satellite project.

Their concern was due to a failure of communication: we had not kept them fully informed of the reasons for the process.

They also did not have technical people with whom to discuss these matters. They are by definition policy people, and handle that job well. My project team delivered 75 technical reports, with a final report of 1,300 pages. We received no technical feedback.

UNSW Namuru V3.2 Space Qualified GPS receiver to be launched into space in late 2014. ACSER

This lack of technical expertise is the hole in the administration that I am talking about. It was discussed at the community consultation over the policy.

Overseas space people have approached us regarding space missions, with specific requests not to talk to policy people (see point 6).

Because it cannot deal with such requests, the Space Policy Unit has said they would be passed on to Geoscience Australia, CSIRO or the Bureau of Meteorology, agencies that are world-class at “satellite utilisation” but are largely unqualified in “space”.

4. To provide leadership on technical space issues

Personally, my problem with Australia’s reactive approach to overseas approaches on space missions is only partly that we don’t have the competence of a space agency to answer such questions from foreign agencies. More important is that we don’t have the people to ask them.

There is no one in Australia dedicated to finding satellite solutions to Australia’s problems.

5. To drag Australia out of its “freeloader” approach to satellite utilisation

The industry launch of the policy at the Space Industry Association of Australia (SIAA) on May 14 this year was a shock to me. Rather than respond to the policy itself, the audience got bogged down in fretting about whether Australia would still have access to free data from the recession-hit countries that give it to us.

Developed countries don’t behave this way (well, only one does): a developed country designs its own satellites to solve its own problems.

Satellites flying in formation to produce flood maps after natural disasters. ACSER

6. To allow Australia to communicate with international agencies at a technical level

I attended the Spacecraft Formation Flying Missions and Technologies conference in 2011 and offered to host it in 2015.

No-one on the conference committee – representative of their country’s space agency – could work out how I – as a potential host – could represent Australia’s space agency, given we didn’t have one.

This small example shows what expectations other countries have of us, and how we fail to meet those expectations.

7. To fill the gap in technical responsibilities in space

Ground station coverage maps for orbiting satellites. ACSER

The agencies of Canada and the UK are good models for Australia. Their organisation structure charts clearly show what is missing from Australia’s space administration.

While the organisations are different, each has a directorate for policy and communications, the functions carried out well by the Space Policy Unit. But they also have directorates covering space science and technology, and space exploration (Canada), and technology, space and exploration (UK). Those directorates are not covered anywhere by any Australian agency.

8. To guide Australia to what it can do in space, rather than what it won’t do

One thing Australia’s Satellite Utilisation Policy is clear on is it:

does not commit Australia to human spaceflight, domestic launch capabilities or to the exploration of other planets.

So no “exploration” directorate, then. Fine.

But the space science and technology directorate is something we should aspire to. Combine it with the Space Policy Unit, and you have a space agency – not too hard to imagine.

9. To stabilise space funding

In 2009, the Australian Space Research Program committed A$40 million to 14 projects over three years – so A$10-15 million a year, ending in June 2013. That is now reduced to zero, with no further funding commited to space for the next few years.

Compare this with Canada’s 2012/13 space agency budget of C$363 million, and the UK 2011/12 space agency budget of £256 million.

Australia doesn’t need that level of funding to maintain a viable space program, as we have noted before, but consistent support is essential for a small sector to flourish.

10. To ensure our very best young engineers are not forced to go overseas if they want to pursue their ambitions in space

Thomas Cooney, a recent UNSW graduate student who is currently attending the NASA Academy at Ames after being awarded the 2012 VSSEC-NASA Australian Space Prize for his innovative undergraduate work. ACSER

An agency also allows goals to be set such as that of the UK space agency:

to see the UK’s space sector grow … to 10% of a space economy likely to be worth some £400 billion by 2030.

A clear message with vision, ambition, is quantifiable, and allows a flow down to lower-level goals, giving its industry the confidence to invest.

The absolute best Australian students are being attracted to space at the undergraduate level, and goals like that will provide them with somewhere to work – here.

So there are plenty of reasons to establish a space agency – otherwise, Australia will remain “lost in space”.

Further reading:
See more Conversation articles on Australia in Space, here.

Andrew Dempster has received funding from the ARC and the ASRP to investigate various aspects of satellite navigation and satellite systems.

The Conversation

This article was originally published at The Conversation.
Read the original article.

[Photo via NASA]

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12 Responses to Do we need a Space Agency here in Canberra?
mike_hettinger mike_hettinger 9:54 pm 09 Aug 13

I can’t help but get the feeling of déjà vu all over again. The concern I have from the article and some of the comments is the implicit assumption that none of this has happened before.

A minor example: a Space Policy Unit was established in 2009, but the original Space Policy Unit was established in 1996. It was cobbled together from what was left of the abolished Australian Space Office, which had existed from 1987 until 1996 and was pretty much the agency that the article promotes.

And that brings me to my main point. It’s not that Australia is the only OECD country without a space agency, but that it must be the only developed country that actually *had* a space agency with a space program and got rid of it!

None of the previous comments have mentioned the Madigan Report, the Australian Space Office or the National Space Program, so here’s a bit of background.

In 1985 the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences submitted the Madigan Report entitled “A Space Policy for Australia” to the Minister for Science. The Madigan Report covered generally the same things that the article mentions. The Madigan Report recommended, among other things, that Australia should establish “as a matter of urgency” a national space policy, a space program with the first phase objective of achieving the capability to participate in complex spacecraft projects, that the Government commit $100 million over five years to finance participation in space projects, and an independent statutory authority. The report is here:

In ~1987 the Australian Space Office (ASO) was established, as well as a Space Board. The Space Board ultimately morphed into the Australian Space Council (ASC), complete with its own Australian Space Council Act 1994 ( The ASC was required to recommend to the Minister a national space policy and prepare a 5-year strategic plan, updated annually (;jsessionid=EF9C935E11E31D94BA9E673DFDA00EBE?id=chamo:356865). The National Space Program (NSP) was managed under this. Outside the NSP, the ASO was responsible for interactions with overseas space agencies, including NASA, and the ASO managed the Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex (CDSCC) at Tidbinbilla on behalf of NASA.

But these initiatives didn’t fully meet the Madigan Report’s recommendations. For one thing, the ASO was not a statutory authority, so it was more vulnerable to arbitrary changes that take place within the Public Service. In addition, instead of the Madigan Report’s recommendation of a budget on the order of $20 million annually, the NSP limped along on an annual budget on the order of $5-6 million, paltry by space program standards.

The Madigan Report recommended a single review of the space program after 4 years, but the ASO and NSP were subject to continual reviews. The final review, the Interdepartmental Committee on International Space Review of the NSP, started in July 1995. The Australian Academy of Science criticised the limited nature of the space program and recommended a budget of $20 million per year ( Instead, during the review funding for the NSP was slashed to zero for the period after June 1996, pending results of the review. The review ultimately reported favourably in 1996; however a Federal election was held in the meantime and the Government changed before funding was restored.

In an atmosphere of major cuts by the new Howard Government in mid-1996, chances of actually raising a budget line item of zero were, well, nil. The Howard Government axed the NSP, and with it the ASC and ASO, justifying it by saying that the previous Keating Government had already cancelled the NSP by setting the 1996-7 budget to zero (which they had indeed done). If the NSP budget remained at $4-6 million instead being slashed to zero, I believe it would have been more difficult to axe the NSP completely.

The new Government created a new Space Policy Unit within the Industry Department to wrap up remaining NSP/ASO/ASC commitments, moved responsibilities for CDSCC to CSIRO, and announced a Cooperative Research Centre to support the Fedsat satellite. The Space Policy Unit (the 1996 one, that is) did chalk up a number of achievements without any program budget, but that is another topic.

So there you have it. If a report already recommended a space agency and a space program, and both were created only to be axed within a decade, what is to say that even if a space agency is created, yet again, that it won’t get axed, yet again?

Both major political parties had champions for the space program, but that was not enough. The bottom line is that there was simply not the political will 20 years ago to maintain a space agency and space program. Unless something has substantially changed since then, there will not be the political will now either.

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” -George Santayana

pink little birdie pink little birdie 12:43 pm 06 Aug 13

You could add:
11. Australia already participates in space programs of other countries in the radio satillite programs (telecasting moonwalks, part of the world solar array program). Australia’s vast tracts of unpopulated land and our geographic location make Australia positioned perfectily to continue to develop space research programs

watto23 watto23 12:33 pm 06 Aug 13

Far better electorally to waste money on pumping up the car industry and other manufacturing industries we just can’t compete in. But both major parties know people like that stuff. Thats the problem with our parliament right now. The ideas are all about winning an election and not improving the country.

Actually the Carbon tax/ETS in theory would improve the country, but look at how mangled that has become. Much like the GST before it.

But instead ideas like this Space agency one get scoffed at as a waste of money and meanwhile the real money is wasted by politicians arguing about the best way to fix a problem like the boat people which is mostly manufactured spin by the politicians anyway!

tuco tuco 12:19 pm 06 Aug 13

poetix said :

Only if we get groovy spacesuits.

I skimmed that, and saw no mention of the words ‘alien’, ‘Tribble’ or ‘tentacles’. What sort of boring Space Agency do they have in mind?

Lamentably, nothing about jetpacks here. On a positive note, no monsters bursting from abdomens either.

poetix poetix 11:59 am 06 Aug 13

Only if we get groovy spacesuits.

I skimmed that, and saw no mention of the words ‘alien’, ‘Tribble’ or ‘tentacles’. What sort of boring Space Agency do they have in mind?

steveu steveu 10:48 am 06 Aug 13

switch said :

Diggety said :

Quite a convincing argument in my opinion.

So, being Australia, we’ll probably commission a report and appoint a committee to look into it. In the fullness of time.

You are right.

We have a tremendous record of poo-pooing innovation and ‘smarts’ in this country.

I would much rather spend money on this rather than trying to think of new things for the yanks to use to fire off at their commercial competitors. I can’t help thinking that investing in the US arms manufacturing industry may be a bit short sighted…

Why not encourage our universities with a program to breed a generation of students to work in this industry? We know from the CSIRO experience (eg. creation of Wifi) that we do have the capability to do smart things…and they can lead to commercial viability at the end of the day.

Diggety Diggety 10:36 am 06 Aug 13

switch said :

Diggety said :

Quite a convincing argument in my opinion.

So, being Australia, we’ll probably commission a report and appoint a committee to look into it. In the fullness of time.

Actually, even the process you describe would be premature.

(I’m going to generalise here) Australians tend to have a distrust of technology and a poor understanding of the value of it. The benefits – and debunking of myths – will need to be communicated to the public over a period before any money is spent on such projects. Sad but true.

neanderthalsis neanderthalsis 10:35 am 06 Aug 13

But Stephen Conroy said that the NBN will faster and more efficient than outdated satellites.

switch switch 10:19 am 06 Aug 13

Diggety said :

Quite a convincing argument in my opinion.

So, being Australia, we’ll probably commission a report and appoint a committee to look into it. In the fullness of time.

Matt_Watts Matt_Watts 10:19 am 06 Aug 13

Quite interesting. There is certainly a lot of vision for space within Australia. Are Aussies actively disuaded from launching satellites etc as a result of a number of competing rules which are hard to navigate (that a lead agency could streamline) or is it simply that no individuals seemingly have enough money for such projects without government support?

FioBla FioBla 10:15 am 06 Aug 13

Look between the ears?

Diggety Diggety 10:07 am 06 Aug 13

Quite a convincing argument in my opinion.

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