Whether it goes zoom or boom, the Artemis SLS will give Australia a rocket

If it goes zoom, will Artemis carry spirits skyward — inspiring a new generation of engineers and scientists like Apollo did — or if it goes boom, will Australia’s hopes of kickstarting a space industry burn up in re-entry?

“Inspiration” was one of the central missions assigned to the Australian Space Agency when it formed in 2018. Since then, a slew of space startup businesses has emerged out of academic research labs and backyard sheds. And a steady stream of graduates has been marching into newly created jobs.

Now it’s a matter of maintaining – and accelerating – that momentum.

Does this hinge on the Artemis Space Launch System (SLS) in the same way the 1970s space revolution was carried by the awesome Saturn V rocket?

To be inspired – or not to be?

“Apollo inspired an entire generation of scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs to go on and do amazing things,” Australian Space Agency Head Enrico Palermo told Cosmos. “We can only imagine what the Artemis missions will do for an entirely new generation. This is a new era of space exploration – to, not just return to the Moon to visit and plant the flag, but establish a permanent presence.”

And the sight of an enormous fiery rocket blasting through the atmosphere will be seared into the minds of a whole new generation, says Space Industry Association of Australia (SIAA) executive officer Philip Citowicki. 

“There are very few things that can shape the zeitgeist of a generation as returning to the Moon can,” he says. “On 12 September 1962, almost exactly 60 years to the day, US President John F Kennedy famously said, ‘we choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard’. While at the time the speech did little to abate criticism and concern about the Moon landing efforts, it stands out today as a flash point of inspiration.”

Catastrophic failure

Citowicki says failure is part of the process: “It either goes up, or it doesn’t”.

Flinders University space archaeologist, Dr Alice Gorman, says a catastrophic failure of the SLS won’t sink the chances of returning to the Moon. “The SLS launch isn’t carrying crew, so the stakes are much lower. Although there will be some disappointed fungus if the launch doesn’t work. The public is very aware that this is a test launch, and there’s an appetite to get back out into space.”

And a sense of competition is once again at play.

Shades of a Cold War-style “space race” are already evident between the US and China. But now billionaire players are also dead keen on winning individual bragging rights.

The Apollo mission, in part, was driven by Russia getting the first satellite into orbit. The fear of falling behind went on to drive US education, science and policy reforms — as well as the creation of NASA itself.

Now Australia has its own space agency.

Read more: Artemis 1 – what happened? Rocket launch scrubbed

“Australia’s involvement in these missions – as well as the great work by Aussie companies and researchers to expand Australian contributions to Artemis in the future – means that Aussie kids today can turn their dream of a career in space into a reality here at home,” Palermo says.

And while Australian industry and innovation have limited involvement with this particular SLS launch, it is heavily invested in the broader Artemis mission.

“Many within the industry champion what it means to have your ‘fingerprints’ on something in space, and having them on a Moon mission will mean just that much more,” says Citowicki.

It’s not only about pushing STEM on a new generation of students. “And it is not just the public who need to have their eyes opened to the industry but our political class, our business and corporate world – and our media as well,” he says

Projects include developing Lunar mining robots, navigation and communications systems.

“Australia has a long history in space,” says Gorman. “But a lot of people aren’t aware of it. There’s still a ‘technological cringe’ in Australia, but space isn’t just about the rockets anymore.”

It’s also about surviving and thriving.

This means we need more botanists, biologists, psychologists, geologists, zoologists, architects, social scientists, artists, and many more fields, to figure out how to build sustainable communities in space. “Hopefully, this can provide inspiration for people no matter what their interests are,” Gorman says.

Please login to favourite this article.