Innovation in outer space, it’s not rocket science

| September 19, 2016

Australia is the only OECD country without a national space agency. Andrea Boyd, Flight Operations Engineer from the International Space Station in Germany, explains why a sustainable space sector would strongly accelerate Australia’s innovation system.

The Space Sector supports the needs of many diverse interests:

  • Innovation
  • Defence
  • National Security
  • The Environment
  • Telecommunications and Navigation
  • High-Tech Employment and Infrastructure
  • The pursuit of STEM: Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics for young people

For Australia space is about doing things we already do and need as a nation better, cheaper, more effectively using satellites. Australia presently has very little indigenous capability or participation in this growing sector with regard to the design and construction of space infrastructure like satellites and is the only OECD country without a national space agency. While various government departments and agencies (including Defence, the Bureau of Meteorology, Geoscience Australia, CSIRO, and many other federal and state government departments ranging from communications to agriculture and border protection) invest in ground stations, purchasing satellite data and data processing; it is a 100% import space economy. There is no overarching federal agency with the executive authority, budget and mandate to:

  • Stimulate domestic industry
  • Prioritise, invest in and have technical oversight of national space hardware projects such as building a satellite for the benefit of the government and the nation as a whole
  • Commit Australia to significant involvement in international programs and projects, and
  • Provide a channel to facilitate Australian industry involvement in such projects

To show the world that we can innovate, Australia needs a proper entity, not a space office with no authority, but a real agency that actually provides jobs, makes purchase orders for locally manufactured products and enables Australia companies access to the $350billion global space market.

There are persistent weaknesses within Australia’s innovation system, for example, in relation to collaboration between the industry, science and research sectors, and commercialisation of viable research and this is partially offset by the Cooperative Research Centres, or CRCs, a wonderful ongoing program which included the CRC for Satellite Systems from 1998 to 2005, responsible for the successful FedSat satellite launched in 2002. The Australian Space Research Program was also responsible for supporting 14 successful new space projects, all of which included either an education element or an innovation and international industry collaboration element. However, that program was only funded for 4 years from 2009 to 2013. The Space Coordination Office within the Department of Industry, Innovation and Science provides space policy advice to Government and coordinates federal government space interests on a consensus basis only, but does not have the executive authority to do more than this. (The ASRP was pretty close to a space program in many respects, particularly with regards to stimulating the local industry – unfortunately there have been no federal funds like that since.)

A sustainable space sector would strongly accelerate Australia’s innovation system, and the Government has just amended the tax system to encourage investors to direct their funds towards high-growth, innovative startups. This is ideal as international investment in space, just last year, was the equivalent of the last 10 years combined.

The cost of space has decreased dramatically with advances in technology: satellites used to necessitate $300million – $3billion and years of development, without exception. However nowadays it’s simple to mass manufacture compact satellites for $150,000 – $300,000 with a lead time of a few months. Legislation will always lag engineering by nature, nevertheless it can be open to innovation and advancement by revising Australia’s old purchasing agreements and policies which assumed large costs and risks that are no longer applicable.

Australia has outstanding capabilities in processing, interpreting, using and developing new applications for data derived from satellites, especially to manage things like our natural resources – including water, crops, oceans, vegetation – and monitor things like weather, climate, natural disasters and urban growth. We clearly need space technology, we pay for it and we have the intellectual and technological capabilities to design and build it ourselves: yet we don’t. It’s a $350billion a year industry about to grow dramatically in which Australia doesn’t participate, aside from sending several billion dollars overseas each year to pay other countries to do space activities for us. Not acting soon could see Australia’s space industry fall too far behind the rest of the world to ever catch up to rapidly advancing technologies.

Ultimately, if Australia creates the right space investment incentives and infrastructure, and simplifies doing business in the space sector by means of a revised Space Activities Act (recently completed), a serious authoritative national space entity can create tens of thousands of new jobs, revive the local manufacturing sectors, continue to harness our ingenuity and grow not just the in next 3 years but for the next 100 years. That’s why innovation in outer space matters to every Australian.



  1. Alan Stevenson

    Alan Stevenson

    September 27, 2016 at 12:24 am

    Australia in space

    I feel it is a pity people like Andrea have to go overseas to fulfill their dreams – we need her and others like her to stimulate our leaders along paths previously ignored. Great articles. Thank you.