Thursday, 3 September 2020
Australian Space Agency
Australia's space activity could be best described as having been disorganised and haphazard, hence the title of the Senate committee report back in 2008, Lost in space? setting a new direction for Australia's space science and industry sector. An announcement to set up a space program in September 2017 by the government was well received. True to its word, in July 2018, the Australian Space Agency was formally stood up, with $26 million in seed funding allocated in the budget. Australia was committing. Enthusiasm was high. The Space Agency issued their strategy in April 2019, with fantastic targets—$12 billion per annum in activity and an additional 20,000 jobs by 2030. Who could be shy in their enthusiasm on that?
I'm very keen for Australia to enter the space domain. We have the land, location, people and the smarts to do this, and South Australia will play a pretty key role in all of this. I've been watching. From media releases to announcements, I see the grants flowing and international and domestic agreements being signed. I see that Australian companies have been winning commercial contracts with domestic and foreign customers. One media releases says the Space Agency is an agency:
… focusing on market gaps, emerging areas and areas of competitive advantage. Collaboration between government, our R&D sector and industry is growing.
It looks like all systems are go. However, now the reality is setting in and the view is less favourable.
An article in The Australian on 1 September sets the scene with the headline 'Countdown on but space industry dragged back to Earth by bureaucratic delays'. I wasn't surprised when I read this. In fact, this was one of my concerns as we entered into this new foray. So I started making my own inquiries. What did I discover? I found an industry highly enthusiastic on the topic of what they do. But no-one wanted to talk to me about the issues they're facing. They're concerned about the situation which is threatening their survivability, but they're not willing to talk about it. I see this in the Australian defence industry as well. They fear speaking out because of the result and persecution from the all-powerful Department of Defence.
It's clear a major issue is the inability of Australian companies to get permits from the Space Agency to launch rockets. One company applied in September last year. It turned out they needed a permit from the Civil Aviation Safety Authority, which took a couple months, and one from the Space Agency, which they don't have yet, and they have no idea when they'll get it. The launch is supposed to be next month. I think the only way the company may get into space is by simply stacking up all the paperwork they've had to fill in and climb up—then they might actually get there! Again, no-one wants to talk about the details.
The attitude and bureaucracy within the Space Agency are clearly threatening a burgeoning growth industry, killing the enthusiasm and making customers wary. Recently on Four Corners Minister Andrews said that there are opportunities that we need to grab with both hands. I'm very confident she didn't mean around the throat and strangling the life out of them. The Space Agency has a regulatory role, but it is also has a role to assist a commercial industry, not hinder it. So my message to the leadership of the Space Agency is: it's not good enough. Dr Clark, Mr Murfett, you are on notice. I will measure you not by the glossy brochures or by the number of MOUs you sign but how you use those MOUs to assist Australian industry and how you use the agency to progress our industry. I don't recall President Kennedy saying the US was going to the moon provided they get the bureaucracy right.