‘Canberra, we have a problem’: Why did it take Australia so long to launch a space agency?

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Announcement of the launch of the world’s first satellite, in October 1957.


Kerrie Dougherty was the space technology curator at Sydney’s Powerhouse Museum in the 1980s.

She worked on developing the first major space museum display in Australia, and sought sponsorship and artefacts from large aerospace companies in the United States for the exhibition.

But it wasn’t the display they were interested in when aerospace giant McDonnell Douglas got in touch with her.

Instead, they asked the curator-turned-independent space historian about a space offset scheme the Australian government was running at the time, which meat that If Australia bought any space technology from overseas, that company had to reciprocate by investing in Australian space companies.

But why was the vice-chairman of McDonnell Douglas calling her about it?

“I was the only Australian space name that McDonnell Douglas as a company knew, and I should not have been getting that phone call. If Australia had a space agency, he’d have been ringing that space agency,” Ms Dougherty says.

More than 30 years later, the Federal Government in September finally announced its decision to launch an Australian space agency.

But the potential had been there for years. This country long has hosted facilities operated by foreign space agencies such as NASA and the European Space Agency. Why, then, did Australia take so long to enter the space race?

The European Space Agency facility in New Norcia, Western Australia, houses one of three Deep Space Antennas in the world. Source: ESA

Star Wars … or lack thereof

One answer to this question can be traced back to one of the most defining events in the history of space technology development – the launch of the Sputnik satellite by the Soviet Union on October 4, 1957. It sparked a widespread panic that came to be known as the “Sputnik shock”, with many developed nations, particularly the US, fearful of the implications for their respective global positions.

The US’s response was to invest heavily in secondary and tertiary education in science and engineering, to being the nation up to speed. There was a renewed sense of urgency in getting to space.

Then Australian prime minister Robert Menzies took an entirely different approach, Ms Dougherty says.

“Menzies played down the significance of the launch on Australia by essentially calling it a ‘flash in the pan’, and emphasised that the government did not need to be investing in a space program.”

She said that while the US and the UK to a lesser extent were saying it was important to counter the Russians, Menzies was opposed.

“Menzies was saying, ‘We don’t really need to. We don’t have the money to be spending huge amounts on space. We’re already spending what we can afford in terms of developing our science and technology, we don’t need to go any further’,” Ms Dougherty says.

Deep Space Station 35 (DSS-35) was the first of two antennas built in Canberra as part of NASA’s Deep Space Network. Picture: NASA.

A few years after the Sputnik launch, in the early 1960s, Australia had a period in recession. Menzies, who was known for being an economically conservative leader, did not want to spend more than he believed Australia could afford after pledging to invest in improving the country’s universities.

But Ms Dougherty says Menzies’ decision had knock-on effects for Australia’s role in space.

“Whatever Menzies thought was considered gospel. His views had a huge influence on the way the Liberal Party formed its opinions on how it was going to govern. Even though he left office in the mid-1960s, his views continued to hold sway on the Liberal Party,” she says.

A space agency was never a serious priority for the Liberal governments that followed. Nor was it given much importance by subsequent Labor governments.

“When the Whitlam government came to power at the end of ’72, their priorities were ‘waking up Australia’ and wanting Australia to be more independent of its relationships with Britain and the United States, which the Labor Party felt weren’t necessarily in Australia’s best interests,” Ms Dougherty says.

The industry strikes back

A space agency can be initiated by the private sector without reliance on the government. This was the case in New Zealand in 2016, which left Australia as one of only two OECD countries without a space agency – the other being Iceland.

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A battery-powered rocket engine printed on 3D parts developed by New Zealand space technology company RocketLab.

RocketLab is a private New Zealand company that became successful because of its immersion in the next generation of space technology – launching small instruments and devices into space frequently.

Professor Andrew Dempster, director of the Australian Centre for Space Engineering Research at the University of New South Wales, points to this as another cause for the lack of a space agency in Australia for so long. He describes the NZ experience as Space 2.0. 

“Because RocketLab was so successful, New Zealand had to change their regulations and so on to cope with the fact that they had a company that wanted to launch from their territory. That sort of forcing function hasn’t happened here in Australia,” he says.

“It is where a lot of the action is at the moment in space. The ‘big agency, big aerospace company’ model is being disrupted by changes in the way you can get things into space and they were in the right place at the right time. They did the right thing to participate in that disruption,” he says.

Although the desired outcome was achieved in that New Zealand created its own space agency because of the push from RocketLab, it generally would not have reflected well on a government if they did not facilitate this development independently.

“It shows that there’s no initiative being shown by the government in question, and no vision or strategy about how space should really be exploited by that country, and how you can develop a space industry and the rate of which a space industry is developing. It’s a huge opportunity that is being lost in Australia,” he says.

Professor Andrew Dempster believes the future of space lies in Space 2.0. Source: Joel Murugiah

But did the Australian space industry have the capability of forcing the government into creating a space agency?

The space industry in Australia has existed for about 60 years, but has focused on satellites and satellite services rather than space exploration in recent years.

According to the Space Industry Association of Australia (SIAA) White Paper Advancing Australia in Space, released in March this year, the Australian space industry contributes $3-$4 billion a year, and employs between 9500 and 11,500 full-time workers.

SIAA chairman Michael Davis says this is a very good time for the Commonwealth Government to establish a permanent national space program overseen by an internationally recognised space agency. 

“We have suggested that one of the prime functions of that space agency would be to generate more industrial activity and more revenue for the Australian economy,” he says.  

Space Association of Australia president Peter Aylward says it is not a question of capability but necessity, given the rise of high value-add sectors such as the space industry in the global economy.

“Global resource prices are declining; the markets are moving to other areas and the value-added processes are where the real opportunity is. We’ve just been sitting on this complacent position of exporting raw materials and not looking at the value-add opportunities. Many people have realised that that’s not going to secure us in the next 50 to 100 years.”

The cost of being a space oddity

Besides economic costs, Australia’s delayed space agency launch has resulted in the loss of many skilled Australians within the space sector to overseas companies and agencies. 

“They all had a dream of working in this hi-tech area in the space field, and the only way they could do that was to go overseas,” Mr Aylward says.

“We have Andrea Boyd working in mission control at the European Space Agency in Germany, we’ve got people working at SpaceX in the US, we’ve got a lot of Australians working at RocketLab in New Zealand – a large proportion of the company is Australian.

“It’s contributing to the brain drain in Australia, it’s really sad that this is the road forward,” he says.

The NASA launch into orbit of three satellites built at two Australian universities – the University of Adelaide and the University of New South Wales – in April was therefore a huge win for the country, as more frequent similar activity would go some way towards retaining Australian talent in the space sector. 

UNSW launched ‘Cubesats’, small satellites with dimensions of 10cm by 10cm. It was the first Australian satellite launch for 15 years. Source: UNSW

Space advocacy organisation Mars Society Australia director Guy Murphy says it’s important to keep good scientists fun Australia,

“It’s a good thing for our national capabilities to have people be able to do this sort of research and extend their knowledge and expertise at home rather than having to leave the country,” he says.

Mr Davis (SIAA) says the absence of a space agency is not the biggest loss for Australia when it comes to the space industry.

“It’s not so much the failure to set up a space agency, it’s the lack of a national plan to maximise the benefits of space to the public, to the government and our commercial sector.”

But Mr Davis says there is immense potential to build on the high revenue that the industry already generates.

“We can have that doubled within a few years with more coordination and more support for basic research development which could then feed into and support a range of commercial activities and plans by Australian companies both large and small.”

A space agency will ensure that communication on space issues will be centrally coordinated to avoid problems like those faced by Ms Dougherty in the past. Australia will be better placed to work closely with overseas space agencies.

“Australia has a good reputation for collaborating internationally and for the foreign aid it provides smaller countries and for participation in organisations such as the United Nations. Collaboration at international level in space would earn Australia even more kudos internationally,” Mr Davis says.

The final frontier

South Australian Senator Simon Birmingham announced the government’s plan to establish a space agency at the 68th International Astronautical Congress in Adelaide, but did not provide any further details about how it will be set up, nor the functions it will serve.

But Mr Aylward envisions a bright future for Australia and Australians if authorities play their cards right.

“I’d love it to be in five, 10 years’ time … kids going to primary school now are studying hard and want to grow up to work at the Australian Space Agency. You can measure space by dollars and rockets and things like that, but I think that inspiration for people and kids to study and try things is really that immeasurable component.”