• A Launch Abort System with a test version of Orion attached, the spacecraft that will take astronauts on their commutes to the Moon.
    A Launch Abort System with a test version of Orion attached, the spacecraft that will take astronauts on their commutes to the Moon. NASA

One of the major announcements out of Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s state visit to the US was the news that Australia has committed $150 million to supporting NASA’s return to the Moon.

The Artemis program aims to see ‘the first woman and the next man’ back on the Moon by 2024 with joint commercial missions in place by 2028. The program will use a powerful new rocket and spacecraft to take astronauts on a five-day commute to the ‘Gateway’, a spaceship the size of a studio apartment orbiting the Moon. Astronauts will use the Gateway as a base for manned and unmanned lunar exploration, but will not live there year-round (unlike the International Space Station).

Ultimately, this program is about more than the Moon. The Gateway will serve as a base for future missions to Mars and will help develop and prove many of the technologies and practices needed for interplanetary travel. It will also help NASA understand how to live and work on the surface of another celestial body.

$150 million might seem like small change relative to such ambitions, but the investment has been heralded by some in Australia’s space sector as ‘transformational’ for the economy.

“I think it’s not hyperbole to say it’s going to change the face of what Australia looks like 10 or 20 years from now, because it’s an investment in new technologies, new scientific enterprises,” Australian astronaut Andy Thomas told Nine mastheads. “It’s building the base for a new economy in Australia. That’s the paradigm shift.”

The money will be spent primarily in Australia, helping the Australian Space Agency develop a local space economy that the government hopes will be worth $12 billion by 2030. It intends to leverage Australian expertise in robotics, automation and remote asset management, largely developed through the mining sector.

The idea that the investment will change the face of the Australian economy may be overstated. To put the funds in perspective, $150 million buys just one and a half F-35 fighter jets, or six Boxer combat reconnaissance vehicles. Australian coal and iron ore exports are currently worth around $117 billion, almost ten times what the government hopes Australian space industry will be worth in a decade.

It does, however, indicate that the government sees space industry as a means of bolstering the economy and our alliance with the US at the same time. This could add welcome political and military tailwinds to Australia’s start-up space industry. The investment is also a means of tapping into the visuals of another Moon landing to inspire the next generation of Australian scientists and engineers, which could help address STEM-qualified worker shortages.

This may be a small contribution to a giant project, but could be a forecast of investments to come.

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