by Tory Shepherd
The idea of shooting for the moon started with US President John F Kennedy, as NASA grew, the Cold War got chillier and the Apollo missions beckoned.
“We choose to go to the Moon,” JFK said in Houston, Texas, in 1962. “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organise and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win…”
Australia played a critical (if bit) role in the 1969 Moon landing, and had its own space success around that time through satellite launches from Woomera, South Australia. Now, it has a chance at its own moonshot. Bolstered by the recent creation of the Australian Space Agency, private industry and academic prowess are carving out a niche in the Artemis program, which aims to put the first woman and the next man on the Moon in 2024.
Australians are making gourmet space food and space ibuprofen, helping space clocks synchronise, and working out how to sustainably mine the Moon and Mars and set up human colonies.
The Federal Government has committed $41 million for the Agency, another $260 million for space infrastructure – particularly satellites – and more for the Space Discovery Centre. And there’s billions more for the Australian Defence Force, because space is the new frontier for national security.
The new head of the Agency, Enrico Palermo, says while the entity is young, Australia has a long and proud history. “With the rapid transformation of the sector and continued growth in unique capabilities like remote assessment management, robotics and automation, and advanced communications, Australia is well placed to offer significant value to the global space economy and be a trusted partner in future space exploration,” he says.
NASA has budgeted more than $23 billion for this year alone, an amount that dwarfs Australia’s taxpayer expenditure. But that discrepancy doesn’t reflect the significance of Australia’s role.
Australia signed the Artemis Accords with NASA in 2019. The deal promises “support for NASA’s plans to return to the Moon and onto Mars in areas of mutual agreement, such as robotics, automation, asset management, space life sciences, human health, and remote medicine”.
There’s also plenty of talk about “leapfrog research and development”: the way Australia can be nimble and swift in the ways it takes established space technologies and surges ahead using already established knowledge in earthly domains. The Agency points out that Australia “punches above its weight in technology”, with 0.3 per cent of the world’s population but more than 4 per cent of its scientific publications.
A moment is beckoning, and some pretty clever people say we’d be crazy to let it slip by.
The Australian Space Agency’s trailing momentum has swept up a swag of locals finding their way into space. One of them is Rowena Christiansen.
Christiansen is a qualified space doctor and founder of the ad astra vita project, a portal for space medicine – remembers looking through her grandfather’s telescope and seeing Jupiter and Saturn. She remembers the Apollo Moon landings, and building and painting her own Apollo model. She was fascinated with Dr Spock – Star Trek’s resident Vulcan – and his problem-solving abilities.
She decided to be an astronaut. It was only when she finished school that she found out women weren’t even allowed to join the Royal Australian Air Force, the first step to becoming a space pilot. Eventually Christiansen got into medicine, and became interested in Australia’s extreme environments: isolated communities, the desert, Antarctica. “I saw them as an analogue to space,” she says.
She started working towards becoming a space physician. A conversation with her is peppered with talk about rural and remote medicine, about endeavours like the Royal Flying Doctor Service, retrieval medical support for isolated people. About Antarctica, where isolation and confinement are serious issues, and the psychological and behavioural issues that come with that: sleeping, eating well.
Her catchphrase is that she wants people in space to “thrive, not just survive”.
While there has been plenty of coverage and conversation about the technical side of space travel, there is an increasing focus on the human side. And the human side is what Australians have experience in, through the desert and through Antarctica. “The human side is a lot more complicated,” she says. “Australians have done the hard yards.”
She points to sleep research done on Australian bases in Antarctica, where the extreme and remote environment, and absence of “regular” light patterns, can help researchers understand what astronauts need. (Naps help.)
As an aside, Christiansen says there might also be opportunities for Australian physicians in space tourism – Richard Branson has talked publicly (and controversially) about Woomera as a base for commercial space jaunts. Take people up for a day in low Earth orbit; look at Uluru, the Great Barrier Reef. “They’ll need doctors to do spaceflight medicals, to work out if they’re fit to fly,” Christiansen says.
“You need to look at people’s ability to tolerate those G-forces, make sure their cardiovascular systems can cope. [And] things like space motion sickness. When people get up to space and start floating around, [vomiting] is a particular issue. All of a sudden to have vomit floating around the cabin…”
Then there are respiratory conditions, and the possibility of panic attacks. Spaceflight has a far bigger checklist than that confronting you when you sit in the exit row on a domestic Qantas flight.
Tory Shepherd is an Adelaide-based freelance journalist. This is an excerpt from her feature article in issue 90 of Cosmos magazine. You can subscribe to Cosmos here.