Selling the merits of rocket science: Is Australia ready for Space 2.0?

It's tipped to be a growth sector in the coming years, but a lack of planning from the federal government will see Australia chase the space boom rather than get ahead of it.

The man responsible for making space exploration ‘cool’ again issued a warning to Australia during his tour last week: 

Chris Hadfield, who is famous for his viral tweets and videos from the international space station, told The Canberra Times that young Australians will miss out on the opportunity to explore the cosmos unless the country establishes a national space agency. Australia is currently the only OECD country without one.

"It’s a difficult national choice; if an Australian kid dreams of becoming an astronaut are we going to let him or her remain Australians, or do they have to leave and become Russians or Americans?" Hadfield told the paper.

“Sure, there’s an expense, but it's peanuts compared to a lot of other things we do at a national level... the benefits outweigh the costs,” he argued.

But this issue is bigger and more complex than a lack of Australian astronauts.

The world is gearing up for the next generation of space exploration. Titled Space 2.0, this new wave of enthusiasm for the great beyond is being driven by commercial interests, rather than for the sake of human exploration. Space X and Virgin’s space tourism division are just a few of the well-known businesses emerging out of this trend. Political indecision on the matter risks Australia’s place in this emerging industry.

Despite the sentiment of Hadfield’s comments, Australia has the potential to capitalise on the space boom. Cost-effectively monitoring and providing telecommunication services to our large, but sparsely populated continent has seen Australia specialise in satellites.

It’s tipped to be a growth sector in the coming years. Earlier this year, market research firm ASDReports predicted that the global emerging micro and nano satellite market would be worth $1.9 billion by 2019, growing at an annual compound rate of 21.8 per cent. It also suggested that Asia Pacific's involvement with this industry would outpace the US over the same period.

Still, the prospect of Australia owning a significant chunk of this market is doubtful for University of New South Wales’s professor of electrical engineering and telecommunications, Andrew Dempster. Dempster, who is also director of the Australian Centre for Space Engineering Research, argues that Australia will be stuck reacting to the space boom rather than proactively planning for it due to a lack of commitment from the federal government.

He says that there is an “entrenched conservatism on both sides of politics” when it comes to space projects. History proves Dempster’s point.

The idea of establishing national space agency isn’t new. Australia created an space agency called the National Space Council in 1994, but a change of government saw the program axed in 1999. This is the trend with most space projects operated by the federal government.

“The stop-start nature [of funding] is a real problem... The political climate can change, and programs can be shut down,” says the chair of Australia’s Space Industry Association, Michael Davis.

“No national space program has been established without strong committed political support,” he says.

Perhaps the most dangerous implication of the government’s fluctuating support is that it’s creating a talent brain drain. Degrees in space engineering attract some of the best and brightest students due to their high entry requirements, yet a lack of work is forcing these graduates overseas, Dempster says.

According to Davis, the short-term nature of government-funded space projects in Australia is also deterring talent. Many of Australia's most proficient engineers and specialists hold leadership positions with overseas projects, he adds. 

If the staffing requirements of Australia’s largest commercial space operation, Optus’ satellite division, are any indication, then the job prospects for graduates are indeed bleak. It only employs around 130 people across all of its various departments, including engineering, marketing and operations. And despite leading the Australian market in operation, construction and launching satellites, the head of the division, Paul Sheridan, says that the department’s headcount has remained “stable” over the past couple of years.

Sheridan agrees that a lot of Australia’s talent ends up working overseas, but argues that commercial realities stop Optus from offering more graduate opportunities.

“It’s always good if you can do more, but obviously, there has to be business and commercial reasons for who you take on,” he says.

The renewed push for a national space agency could be interpreted as a cry for funding stability within the sector. Given that the previous Labor government’s recently introduced National Satellite Utilisation Strategy has not been shot down by the Abbott government in the budget, Micheal Davis holds hope that current government may open to investing in further space endeavours. And in turn, guarantee a stable career path for our talent.

But Dempster isn’t taking any chances. In lieu of federal government funding, he attempting to set up its own incubator that will help marry investors with space start-ups. It's called Delta V and it’s holding its first board meeting today.

“Unless Australia gets in we’re going to completely miss the boat,” says Dempster.

“We’re trying to take some of the initiative into our own hands,” he says. Tellingly, Delta V has the backing of both the NSW state government and the City of Sydney, but is yet to receive federal government support.

Dempster suspects that that the toughest challenge with Delta V will be explaining the merit and potential value of various satellite projects to investors. But perhaps selling the merits and potential value of space projects to the government has been the challenge all along.

After all, it is rocket science.

Got a question? Let us know in the comments below or contact the reporter @HarrisonPolites on Twitter. 

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