Why Australia is lost in space

There's a reason Australia has never had a space agency.

It's an opportunity cost. That is we've always reminded ourselves of all the other things we could buy for the price of going to 100 kilometres above sea level to the K??rm??n line, the internationally accepted border of earth and space.

But earlier this month, the Turnbull government said New Zealand's got one, we should have one, too.

"An Australian space agency," the Turnbull government announced in Adelaide at the International Astronautical Congress with no details about its cost, mission or launch date, but a "commitment to industry".

The details will be ironed out in next year's May budget, we are advised, leaving eight months to hypothesise on what the money being used to establish the space agency could otherwise buy and how many jobs it might deliver to the politically important and economically struggling South Australia.

For a mid-tier country that can't kid itself by trying to compete on scale with the US, China and Russia, we could take Canada and the UK space agencies for models on what a likely Australian space spend could look like.

The UK, which has the bigger of the two space agencies costs $590 million a year, Canada's costs $100 million less.

Both, as Australia is likely to do, focus on mostly on building satellites and equipment.

We now spend less than $40 million a year on our civil space program, according to a 2016 budget green paper by the Space Industry Association of Australia.

Establishing a serious space agency in more than just name would mean increasing its budget ten-fold.

That is equal to the Australia's entire foreign humanitarian assistance budget or five new 'growth centres' in science and technology, mining, oil and gas, medical, food and advanced manufacturing, according to the federal budget.

Or eight schools and three marriage equality surveys a year.

With most of these, we have historically had a comparative advantage. With space, we do not.

Australia is just one of two countries in the OECD without a space agency, the other being Iceland, but there is no law of economics that says if every other country's got one, we need one too.

Our "lucky longitude" close to the equator has meant we theoretically should be able to launch satellites easier due to the laws of physics, but the last time we launched a satellite from Woomera in the 1970s, it failed to reach orbit, and we were only given a seat at the table so the European Space Agency could use our pad.

Even that enormous feat of broadcasting engineering, beaming the moon landing from the Parkes Dish, watched by six hundred million people, or one fifth of mankind in 1969, failed to spark a national lust for space.

Since then our space program has been mired in missed opportunities for intercontinental ballistic missiles, hypersonics and tales of sudden funding shortfalls and rapid cuts.

So whats changed? The opportunity cost.

According to astrophysicist Alan Duffy small, scalable satellites the size of a smartphone mean we don't need to launch satellites the size of a bus anymore.

"We get to space cheaper and we can do more when we're there," he said last month.

Despite the absence of a space agency, Australia still rates very highly in space startups per capita.

They are not Virgins or Teslas, but small companies punching above their weight in niche areas.

Among them Gilmour Space Technologies based on the Gold Coast which will be launching low-cost hybrid rockets for the small satellite market by the end of next year.

In New Zealand, the growth of startup Rocket Lab has been the defining reason for the government establishing its space agency. The company will charge $5 million to launch satellites weighing up to 150 kilograms to a 500-kilometre orbit.

Just a decade ago NASA signed contracts with SpaceX for $1.6 billion for 12 launches.

Brian Li from the University of Canberra estimates Australian consumers and the government pay about $5.3 billion to overseas satellite corporations every year for mapping and informational technology, and the development of a micro-satellite industry will have significant flow-on effects.

It could stop some of our brightest students leaving Australia to pursue their careers.

Cue the possibility of higher productivity, employment, spending and economic growth.

The director of Australian Centre for Space Engineering Research at UNSW, Andrew Dempster says at some point Australia has to stop free-loading off other countries' space capabilities.

"Australian solutions to Australian problems: i.e. it is about Australian sovereignty," he said.

He recalls a 2013 audience at the Space Industry Association of Australia getting bogged down about whether Australia would still have access to free data from the recession-hit countries that give it to us.

"Developed countries don't behave this way [well, only one does]: a developed country designs its own satellites to solve its own problems," he said.

The lack of a space agency has meant Australia is effectively shut out of the discussion at an international level, with no one able to answer questions from the NASAs, UKSAs and CASAs of the world, let alone ask them.

Simon Driver, a Professor of Astrophysics at the University of Western Australia, says Australia already plays a critical role in many other countries' space programs, and it was time it started getting what it was owed.

"No one is suggesting that the data we receive on behalf of NASA should be held to ransom, but it is worth asking whether we should be doing more to capitalise on our lucky longitude," he wrote in a piece published in The Conversation last year.

It's tempting to cynically see this announcement as the flashy incarnation of the government's innovation agenda.

It's got plenty of positive coverage with no numbers, few commitments and a whole lot of excited astrophysicists, but maybe there is some advice to be had from Cliff Buxton, the scientist played by Sam Neill in The Dish.

"Failure is never quite so frightening as regret".

Eryk Bagshaw is economics reporter, Ross Gittins is on leave.

This story Why Australia is lost in space first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.