Do we need a NASA? Sinodinos invites ex-CSIRO chief on a space odyssey

By Stephen Easton

July 13, 2017

Australian academics and companies are already involved in the space game and the federal government is now reviewing how it can provide more focused support to their efforts.

Part of that involves considering “the most effective institutional arrangements” to do that, which means we might soon get a national space agency.

Up on Canberra’s Mount Stromlo, growing light pollution and a destructive bushfire have significantly reduced the usefulness of the site as an observatory compared to its halcyon days but some very high-tech space research goes on nonetheless using facilities like the “Wombat XL” space simulator.

Today, Cabinet secretary Arthur Sinodinos has announced a review of the local space industry by an expert reference group, to be led by former CSIRO chief Megan Clark. They will get to work from July 20 and report by the end of next March.

Clark’s group is tasked with delivering a long-term plan to grow the “important and exciting” sector, according to Sinodinos.

“The space industry sector has been growing at a compound annual growth rate of 9.52 per cent from 1998 to 2015, more than three times the annual growth rate of world GDP in the same period. Globally, revenue from space-related activities in 2015 was about US$323 billion,” he said in the statement.

“The Australian Government wants to ensure the right framework and mix of incentives are in place to assist Australia’s growing space industry sector to participate successfully in this global market.”

Clark’s team will look at where our comparative advantages lie, where our industry can collaborate internationally and “how the space industry sector aligns with other sectors and government priorities”. Sinodinos says it’s the right time, because commercial opportunities in space are increasing with technological advances.

“I believe that Australia can participate in the global space sector and through development of the technical capability and knowledge required for this demanding sector, we will develop skills to grow other advanced manufacturing industries in Australia,” said Sinodinos.

Policy around the civil space industry is in the domain of the Department of Industry, Innovation and Science, so any Aussie version of NASA would likely sit under its umbrella. The review will build on the 2013 satellite utilisation policy. and a long-running review of the Space Activities Act

Clark will be joined by a host of other academics — Russell Boyce, Michael Davis, David Williams, Stuart Minchin, Steven Freeland, Anna Moore, Jason Held and Flavia Tata Nardini — and the review’s full terms of reference are:

  • identifying Australia’s current industry capability and areas of comparative advantage for Australia to develop,
  • technologies and practices that promote innovation in both the downstream (users of space technologies) and upstream (providers of space technologies) elements of space activities, particularly in areas of niche capability and competitive advantage,
  • Australia’s level of regional engagement and international collaboration, including identifying critical future and existing partnerships,
  • identifying capability gaps to support the global competitiveness of Australian firms in the civil space sector,
  • strategies to promote Australian firms engaged in the civil space sector, both domestically and internationally,
  • risks and opportunities, including ongoing access to space data and associated infrastructure essential to our national interests,
  • alignment with other sectors and Australian Government priorities, including Defence and cyber security, and meeting Australia’s international obligations, and
  • the most effective institutional arrangements to support the strategic direction of Australia’s space industry
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