Tuesday, April 20, 2010

A New, Comprehensive Space Policy for Australia?

There is more and more coming out that the new Space Policy Unit in Canberra is working hard to develop a new Space Policy for Australia. In fact, we could see something by mid 2010 if we’re lucky!

As part of the original mandate of the Space Policy Unit, the development of a new Space Policy for Australia has been on-going since the announcement on the 1st of July 2009, when the Space Policy Unit was established.

So, what can we expect in the new policy?

Well, it’s not just coincidence that there have been several major space domain specific publications released in Australia in the last 12 months. Firstly, in July 2009, The Australian Academy of Sciences and the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering released a document called “An Australian Strategic Plan for Earth Observations from Space”. If you haven’t read it, head here. It contained 9 recommendations including the recommendation of a National Earth Observations from Space Policy, and an National Earth Observations from Space Office.

The second key document, which will be released between March and May of 2010, is the “First Decadal Plan for Australian Space Science”. A Pre-release of this document was published on the 26th of January 2010, and it has been under development for a significant amount of time, so it is likely to be a big influence on the Space Policy Unit. This document is key for two reasons, firstly, as it has significant consensus among the Australian Space Science community, and secondly, as it presents a long term plan. The Plan outlines a series of Space Science programs, and looks to use these programs not just to achieve the science, but also build up a strong Australian Space community in the process. The plan can be found here.

The third key document has not yet been released. Mr Brett Biddington, with the assistance of Mr Roy Sach are currently developing a paper for the Kokoda Foundation entitled “A Space Policy for Australia: Challenges and Opportunities”, which is due for release in very shortly (April 2010). Why I have sighted this as the 3rd main document, is that both Brett Biddington and Roy Sach are highly influential people within the Australian Space sector, and their views appear to be both heard, and well accepted by the current government. When their paper is released, head to the Kokoda Foundation website to read it.

Put together, these three documents are all likely to point to some sort of structured Australian Space Office or, dare I use the word, Australian Space Agency. There is definitely a good appreciation within the current Australian Government (at least compared to the previous government) that Space is truly important to Australia, and that we’re currently falling behind where we should be, or as the Senate committee titled their report, Australia is currently “Lost in Space”.

It is also likely that this Space Office, or Space Agency will have (at least) three key areas or divisions within it, Earth Observation, Communications/Navigation, and Science. This will ensure that within these three area’s, the Australian government will start to develop some genuine competency, and we can then really start asking the right questions that for so many years we have been silent upon.

In my mind, there are two key questions that are still very open in Australian Space policy, and may be discussed further in Brett Biddington’s paper.

Firstly, how will the Australian Defence Force fit into any Australian Space policy? The ADF is currently engaging seriously in the Space domain, and both its use of, and interest in space is rapidly growing at the moment. So, will the Australian Space Policy examine this question, or will we create a genuine civil / military distinction in our activities from the outset, leaving Defence to do their own work in space, and ensuring any Australian Space Office/Agency is a purely civilian organisation.

The Second, and more difficult question to answer, is what to do with the existing civilian government agencies and organisations in Australia that are currently doing space, or close to space type work, such as CSIRO, IPS, Geoscience Australia, Bureau of Meteorology, and the various Astronomy organisations? Should elements of these organisations be moved within the Space Office/Agency? Should the Space Office be similar to the British National Space Council, and just be a meeting point for all of those agencies? Perhaps if anything, British experience tells us that the Agency model is perhaps more suite to the Space domain.

So, with all of those questions and ideas to think about, we rapidly await the Space Policy Unit to release their policy.

My true hope is that whatever policy is developed, it becomes “long-term” in its outlook, and does not become a partisan political issue. If it can achieve these two points, it could truly form the basis for an Australian Space future.

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