The “giggle factor” may have once again derailed a concerted attempt to establish a national space agency in Australia, but experts argue the proposition is far from laughable.
The federal government, which already spends more than $1 billion a year on space-related activities, neglected to allocate any funds for the development of a homegrown space agency in the recent budget, despite an urgent call for action from the Space Industry Association of Australia (SIAA).
Australia is one of only two developed countries without a domestic space agency, although it has world-class experts and facilities, including the Woomera test range.
In March this year, the SIAA published a white paper, called Advancing Australia in Space, detailing why a space agency is vital for Australia.
It reads: “The need for this reform is urgent. We cannot be left behind while the rest of the world reaches for space. It’s time to stop being a mere consumer of space services and to actively shape the future of our space sector.”
Australia spends more than a billion dollars each year on space services, such as satellite data, provided by other countries, particularly the US and Japan.
“By providing our own satellite systems that allow for international cooperation, we gain a seat at the table and it gives us something to bargain with,” SIAA chairman Michael Davis said.
An Australian Space Agency would also boost economic and employment growth, inspire budding STEM scientists and fortify Australia’s national security, the white paper claims.
Mr Davis said other countries of our economic status developed domestic space agencies decades ago, he said, adding that even New Zealand had announced last year that it would establish a space agency.
Minister for Industry, Innovation and Science Arthur Sinodinos told Sky News his department was looking into the white paper, and that he’s excited at the idea of Australia having a greater involvement in space.
“We have every reason to believe he is very seriously considering it, and that consideration will involve other ministers and a considerable number of commonwealth agencies,” Mr Davis said.
But Australia has a history of sidelining space programs – cost and the so-called “giggle factor” of space traditionally make politicians uneasy. And in this year’s budget, the white paper’s vision for an Australian Space Agency was nowhere to be seen.
There were, however, some funds allocated to space research: more than $26 million has been set aside for Australia to access telescopes in Chile, establishing a 10-year partnership with the European Southern Observatory.
But leaving a national space agency out of the budget didn’t come as a surprise to white paper co-author Mark Ramsey.
“We weren’t expecting it; however we would have been pleasantly surprised if something was announced,” Mr Ramsey said.
“We feel it’s a sector that has been ignored for a long time.”
Both Mr Ramsey and Mr Davis said they’re expecting the upcoming International Astronautical Congress in Adelaide this September, which will host the world’s leaders in space, will be the catalyst for an announcement.
“Even without an allocation in this year’s budget, we’re still optimistic the government will make an announcement at the [International Astronautical Congress], at the very minimum,” Mr Davis said.
“We understand it’s an important decision that requires further consultation and deliberation by the government.”