Centre of the Universe

History was made in Adelaide in September when the first national space agency was announced. Now the city is launching into securing a significant stake in this booming industry

Pamela Melroy doesn’t toy with small ideas. The retired NASA astronaut commanded a space shuttle, spent almost 1000 hours in space and worked on the Orion spacecraft. “After working at DARPA (the US defence department’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) and NASA, I’m not content with small ideas any more,” she says. “It has to be a big idea.”

Her latest big idea is moving to Adelaide to work with defence giant Nova Systems. The Adelaide-based company, which works with aerospace and defence companies on systems technology, is a major player in shaping the future of Australia’s new national space agency.

Colonel Melroy has been visiting Australia for more than 20 years to talk to students about space. While in Adelaide for the 68th International Astronautical Congress (IAC) in September, she said her hopes were that an Australian space agency would stop the brain drain. “There is so much talent here and so much interest,” she says. “And it’s my hope that this space agency will provide the focus to enable a very robust industry that allows all that Australian native talent to stay here in Australia.

“So the ones who want to work in space don’t have to go to another country to do it.”

It was a historical event when the Federal Government announced at the IAC on September 25 that it would create a national space agency to harness billion of dollars, thousands of jobs and decades of dreams.

Globally, the space industry is worth more than $400 billion; in Australia, it is worth about $4 billion and employs 11,500 workers.

The Space Industry Association of Australia (SIAA) says the country’s mere 1 per cent stake in the global industry could increase fivefold in 20 years with the creation of an agency.

The SA Government estimates an agency could help boost revenue to as much as $18 billion within three years. “The agency will be the anchor for our domestic co-ordination and the front door for our international engagement,” says Acting Science Minister Michaelia Cash. “A national space agency will ensure we have a strategic long-term plan that supports the development and application of space technologies and grows our domestic space industry.

“The global space industry is growing rapidly and it’s crucial that Australia is part of this growth.”

A space agency would act as the first port of call for industry and as a source of advice for the government. Australia is the only developed nation without an agency. New Zealand created the NZ Space Agency last year.

Work is still being done on the fine details for the agency and funding for the body will be announced in next year’s Federal Budget.

The announcement was an exceedingly rare political moment, with the major parties perfectly aligned. Even if the Coalition loses the next election, the agency will be created. Opposition Leader Bill Shorten says: “Australia should be leading the space race, not languishing at the back of the pack,” he says. “Taking advantage of the global space economy means more investment and more jobs in our backyard,” he says.

All states are in the running to form the launching pad for the space agency. But South Australia is poised to play a major part in the booming industry, with calls for an industrial and operational base in Adelaide, while headquarters are to be based in Canberra. SA already has many elements of the space industry in place, including more than 60 space-related organisations, an action plan and the newly established SA Space Industry Centre. Martin Hamilton-Smith is the state’s first Space Industries Minister.

Driven by the burning need for jobs and a future in advanced manufacturing, the State Government has been relentless in outlining the case for an agency in SA. Space ties neatly into SA’s burgeoning defence industry, as many of the players work in both spheres and plenty of space-related research is already underway in Adelaide, a university city. SA Senator Simon Birmingham says SA would be “central” to the space industry because of its geography and the alignment with the defence industry.

“I am truly excited by the potential this announcement will bring to Australia and SA, with opportunities to inspire a new generation to literally see the world as their universe and embrace the potential benefits of studying science and related disciplines,” he says.

The announcement has received widespread support within the space fraternity. The SIAA, CSIRO and a range of academics welcomed the decision. Speaking at the IAC, the European, Canadian and Japanese heads all joined the chorus.

Colonel Melroy’s enthusiasm for an Australian space agency ignited when Nova Systems chair Jim Whalley raised the topic with her. “When he brought up the Australian space agency, I said, ‘Yeah, this is a big idea and not only does Australia need to do it but it really matters to do it right. And make it successful’. And so I’m very committed to doing that.

“It’s exciting to be part of a big thing and to be part of it at the beginning.”

Bill Nye
The Science Guy
“A space program is a country’s best ambassador. Practically, when space agencies
co-operate on any space mission, the cost to any one partner, to any one nation, goes down. More important though is the shared feeling of citizens everywhere that we can work together to accomplish great things in space that affect each of us here on Earth. As a species, we will and we must co-operate down here on Earth and up and out there in space.”

Robert Lightfoot
Acting NASA administrator

“This is an excellent opportunity to increase our collaboration and co-operation. This is a global endeavour. For Australia not to be a part of that (before having an agency) is a little bit strange.”

Michaelia Cash
Acting Federal Science Minister

“Space – and all that it conjures in our minds and hearts, from preschoolers to astronautic superstars – holds special sway with us beyond any other human pursuit. It has an inimitable power to engage, inspire and transform us.”

Igor Komarov
Russian Federal Space Agency head

“One is the national development … a voice internally. At the same time you have a voice to the outer world. Not outer space; that’s later. But the outer world.”

Andrew Thomas
South Australian former astronaut

“I am unashamedly pro-South Australia in this since it meshes and overlaps so well with local defence industries, especially undertakings such as the submarine build. We need to play in their arena in terms those countries understand and that means having a recognised national space agency.”


Having breakfast in Sydney’s Balmain before catching up with acquaintances for lunch at London’s Harrods – it might seem like a wild dream but, according to entrepreneur Elon Musk, pictured opposite page, it could soon become a reality. The SpaceX entrepreneur says his “Big F……. Rocket” would be able to fly anywhere in the world in under an hour for the cost of an economy ticket, and could take Earthlings to the moon and Mars. The BFR will carry 100 people, with two or three to a cabin. Musk’s long-awaited mission update at the International Astronautical Congress included more detail on the rocket’s technology, and his plans to build a moon base and a city on Mars. Some insiders at the conference have serious doubts about Musk’s plans, considering them too ambitious and risky. But there is overwhelming optimism from others about his planned Interplanetary Transport System. Musk wants to build a city on Mars with an eventual population of a million – and he says he can start sending cargo as soon as 2022 – years earlier than previously estimated. “It’s aspirational,” he says. “We can be ready for a launch in about five years. Five years seems like a long time to me.” The crowd of astronauts and rocket scientists cheered when he said a base on the moon was past due. “It’s 2017. We should have a lunar base by now. What the hell is going on?”