Saturday, April 7, 2012

Australian Space Funding - Back down to Earth or Ready to Launch?

As we approach the announcement of the 2012/2013 Budget, the space industry is staring down a cross roads of its future in Australia.

Winding the clock back to the 2009/2010 Federal Budget, $48.6 Million was budgeted accross the next four years for two things - $40 Million to setup the Australian Space Research Program (ASRP), and $8.6 Million to setup the Space Policy Unit (SPU).

The ASRP has seen 14 grants awarded across the four selection rounds. Of these, there were 4 grants awarded under Stream A (Education) and 10 awarded under Stream B (Space Science and Innovation). A total of 61 different organisations have been part of the ASRP, and the program requires that recipients match grant funding by at least 1 to 1, so over $80 Million in value has been created by the program. Overall the ASRP has been a stunning success, and has re-established a small, but growing space industry in a relatively short time frame.

The Space Policy Unit was funded $8.5 million across the 4 year period, to help coordinate Australia's national and international civil space activities, including partnerships with international space agencies. In this time, the SPU has made great strides in starting to coordinate the plethora of space activities in Australia, develop the Principles for a National Space Industry Policy, and helped Australia step back onto the international space stage - particularly becoming active in international space policy again.

At an average of $12.2 Million per year, the results achieved have been very impressive, however, all of this funding expires at the end of the 2012/2013 budget.

Compare this with the US$17.7 Billion that NASA is allocated for each year, and you start to get a feeling for the severity of the lack of funding for Space in Australia.

Now this is not to say that Australia doesn't spend a lot on space or that space doesn't deliver value to the Australian economy. In the recent times we have seen several parts of the government actively involved in the Space domain - recently the NBNCo signed a deal with Space Systems Loral for 2 Ka-band telecommunications satellites for $620 Million, the defence department has spent $927 Million on joining the Wideband Global Satellite Communications constellation, a joint Australian / U.S. Space Surveillance facility was announced for W.A., and Geoscience Australia valued the contribution of Earth Observation to the Australian economy at over $3.3 Billion.

At this point - we need to ask ourselves, is a meagre $12.2 million per year spent by the Australian Government worth it? Is it enough?

Clearly the investments made in the SPU and the ASRP have been both worth it, and at the very least the Australian government needs to commit in this year's budget to extending this funding for the next five years. If this commitment is not made, the SPU and ASRP would effectively shut down at the end of next year's budget - a disastrous outcome for Australia.

Furthermore, the SPU and ASRP funding should be expanded - to deliver a national space policy and start undertaking more ambitious space projects that address Australia's national priorities.

In doing so, we should draw together the various government departments that are actively involved in Space to more effectively and efficiently apply our limited resources. We should also examine long term strategies of how we can develop more self-reliance, and avoid sending giant cheques overseas every time we need to purchase critical space infrastructure.

Back in November 2008, the Australian Senate produced a landmark report into Australia's Space Sector entitled: Lost in Space? Setting a new direction forAustralia's space science and industry sector. Since then we've made great strides - but it is now time to accelerate, not to go back to where we were then.

It is time for Australia to re-commit to its space priorities in this year's budget.

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