Anxiety, optimism and confusion greet this week’s space forum

By Jamie Seidel

Cosmos Science Australian space correspondent

Delegates gathering for the 15th Australian Space Forum in Adelaide this week are likely to be feeling a sense of anxiety, waiting for the Federal Budget which will indicate, yet again, political commitment to the sector.

The forum’s key-note speaker Dr Hiroshi Yamakawa, President of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, will kick off discussion about global and regional collaboration, but it’s political relationships in Australia which will be eagerly anticipated.

Some sectors of the industry are struggling to capitalise on good science and as the “2030 Space+Spatial Industry Growth Roadmap” report presented to the Australian Space Agency said: “…the industry needs to significantly strengthen, integrate and coordinate these two vital sectors so that they can innovate, grow and deliver at pace and position Australia to join the digital age’s global leaders.”

So, with a host of hi-tech startups uncertain of the direction, things are drifting, and there’s a palpable sense of anxiety ahead of what’s expected to be a tough Federal Budget.

The Space Forum is run by the Andy Thomas Space Foundation and this week coincides again with that major policy event for the second year in a row. “That’s simply a stroke of bad luck,” says Kacey Lam-Evans, Partner at Pyne & Partners.

Kacey Lam-Evans

And the former government science advisor says Minister for Industry and Science Ed Husic’s comparatively low profile over the past year should not be cause for concern. “I think it’s significant that one of Minister Husic’s first actions in his current role was signing off the launch licence for NASA’s rocket launch in the Northern Territory.”

She adds the Australian Space Agency has been through a cycle of settling in, identifying regulatory areas that need addressing and engaging in industry consultation. And it’s had to explain all this to a new set of ministers and advisors.

“A change of government has also meant a slight pause and insertion of a new government’s space policy pathway, which the Space Agency has taken in their stead,” Lam-Evans adds.

The Australian Space Agency was launched in 2019 amid lofty ambitions to triple the size of Australia’s space industry to $12 billion and create 20,000 new jobs by 2030.

“Those targets were ambitious,” says Professor Melissa de Zwart of Flinders University’s College of Business, Government and Law. “No one, of course, could have predicted COVID. And we still have a brain drain that washes out of Australia. But, at the end of the day, we’ve got more people in space jobs now than we’ve ever had before”.

De zwart
Professor Melissa de Zwart

State and federal government incubator programs have succeeded in planting the seeds of a new industry, but these startups have had to tighten their belts amid supply chain issues, intense international competition and uncertain grant opportunities.

“We’re looking at a trajectory that had a bit of a dip last year, but we’re on the way back up again,” de Zwart told Cosmos Science. “But we have certainly come a lot further in the past five years than we would have otherwise because we now have the space agency.

“You now have New South Wales claiming it is the centre of space in Australia, not South Australia. Things are certainly looking a lot more vibrant and competitive.”

Every state and territory in Australia now has some kind of space scheme. There are more businesses. There’s a lot more money going into it.

“Look at any of those metrics, and you’ll see a whole lot of new activity,” de Zwart adds.

It’s no longer a question of if Australia should have a space industry, says de Zwart. Instead, it’s a matter of accepting we already have one.

That can be seen in the evolution of the Australian Space Forum itself.

“It used to be predominantly about people on the stage talking about what was going to happen, but now the trade show element is just as big and important. And that wouldn’t happen if you didn’t have industry interested enough to spend money on a booth and send people along”.

Such interest helped to entice the International Astronautical Congress (IAC) back to Australia in 2025. “Certainly, there’s been issues with delays in getting outcomes on Commonwealth grant programs. But a maturing industry will be moving away from relying on grant income anyway,” sats de Zwart.

Amid it all, Australia’s Space Agency also had to find its feet.

As a startup itself, it’s had to work out what a regulator does and does not do.

“The reality with space policy is that politically, broad support is required if we want to improve a regulation to make it more efficient,” says Lam-Evans. “I don’t believe there is any political appetite for unilateral change on either side of politics.”

Also in Cosmos: Australia stuggles to capitalise on its drive to space

She adds that solid lines of communication between the agency and industry are necessary.

“Now that we are at the tail end of some of these processes, hopefully we will start seeing beneficial changes in our space regulations that will make it easier to ‘do space’ in Australia while still ensuring safety.”

And some of the Australian industry’s travails have helped prove the need for a sovereign capability.

In April an outage involving British satellite company Inmarsat caused John Deere agricultural machinery to fall idle for several days due to a lack of precision navigation signals.

And One Web satellites lined up for launch by Russian rockets were forced to stand down after Moscow invaded Ukraine. These satellites will now be launched from India. “So when anyone asks if there is a reason why we don’t want to be dependent on other states, well, yes, there is,” says de Zwart.

The road ahead

“We’ve put up our ‘open for business sign’, and it’s fascinating to see how people’s imagination has been directing that,” says de Zwart

Initially, the attitude was that Australia would do space – but not launch. Now several launch projects are in the pipeline to take advantage of new orbit trajectories and the sling-shot effect of the equator.

“Again, five years ago, who would have said we would be sending a rover to the moon? But, of course, it makes sense. Australia is renowned for its remote mining technology,” she adds.

And that generates a sense of achievement, and progress.

“Yes”, says de Zwart, “Australia’s not a space power. But it is a participant. We’ve been part of space since the very beginning.”

“When we were at the IAC in Paris last year, Enrico Palermo was there on the stage with all the other Artemis Accords heads of agency,” she adds. “It’s pretty awesome to see our head of agency among all those spacefaring nations”.

And the momentum continues to build, adds Lam-Evans. “As I remind the companies that I work with, engaging with government space policy and all policy areas for that matter, is a marathon, not a sprint,” she told Cosmos. “We’ve started to see the release of Trailblazer and Moon to Mars grant funding recently. My gut feeling is that now that the government’s feet are truly under the desk, more will follow.”

And there’s no sign of diminished interest among innovators, graduates and skilled employees.

“People in the space industry are not looking to get out,” says de Zwart. “That would be the big test. They may still be looking for the next job or project. But it’s still going to be in space”.

And that optimism and enthusiasm will only continue to grow with the ASA’s drive to strengthen international relationships with the likes of the UK Space Agency, Japan’s JAXA and India’s ISRO, she adds. “That sort of stuff really gets industry energised.”

But communication remains crucial, says Lam-Evans. “I believe that in the past, our space industry has been very good at talking about the technical areas of their work – the rocket science, as it may be. Unfortunately for many of us non-technical people – including government decision-makers, this message just gets lost!”

It’s why the agency and industry need to explain the on-earth application of their work and not emphasise ‘space for the sake of space’.

“The future success of space in Australia is a narrative where we are talking about space for the sake of sovereign communications, GPS, medical advances and critical minerals. Not space for the sake of rocket science alone.”

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