The last few weeks have seen nationwide excitement increase as the launch date for Australia’s national space agency approaches.
A common debate, however, has emerged over where the national space agency should be based.
The agency will begin operating from within the Department of Industry, Innovation, and Science’s offices in Civic, Canberra on July 1st. The national capital is also highly likely to become the agency’s permanent base, with nodes located in each state. This model is favoured by Labor, industry experts, and agency chief Dr Megan Clark.
Yet there are a number of voices are calling for the headquarters to permanently relocate to a state capital instead. Senator Rex Patrick, for example, has warned that a Canberra HQ would ‘threaten the further development of South Australia’s growing space industries’.
In a statement, Senator Patrick said that decision for a hub and spoke model “involves a politically driven breakdown of due process and a complete failure to acknowledge South Australia’s very strong claims to be the central hub.”
South Australia’s claims are centred on a strong industry presence in Adelaide, local academic expertise, and an infrastructure base that includes the Woomera test range. The state’s geography also places it in a favourable position for launching satellites on a polar orbit.
However, LT GEN David Thompson, deputy chief of US Space Command, has noted that whilst Woomera also has electromagnetic purity, it does not offer the advantages it once did, and so US-Australian cooperation is likely to take place elsewhere. In addition, polar orbit launches would place SA in direct competition with existing launch sites across the northern hemisphere.
Other states and territories can put forward similar arguments. The Northern Territory is inside the equatorial launch zone, which reduces launch costs by up to 50 per cent thanks to the extra speed gained from the Earth’s rotation. Western Australia has significant industry interest, particularly from mining companies, and has low electro-magnetic interference.
Yet all of these arguments miss the point. Ultimately, the agency will be a policy arm of government. It is not a ‘NASA down under’ – it will not launch rockets or build infrastructure, nor will it create an enormous number of jobs. Moreover, its absence from state capitals will not threaten local industry development (which has been booming for without any agency at all).
Defence is likely to be industry’s largest customer and is increasingly developing space strategies and capabilities, many in conjunction with the US. Austrade, CSIRO, and DFAT will also need to maintain significant contact with the agency. Locating the HQ outside Canberra will inhibit the face-to-face contacts necessary for the federal government to present a unified space strategy to industry and other countries – which is the core purpose of the agency.
Local strengths will certainly have a role to play in Australia’s national space strategy, but the emphasis here is on the word national. Other national enterprises, including Defence and CSIRO, are headquartered in the national capital despite maintaining significant infrastructure and industry contacts across the country. Defence is not headquartered in Adelaide or any other state capital for reasons that apply equally to the space agency HQ.
In short, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the national space agency is better able to implement national space strategy in the national capital. To do otherwise jeopardises the one opportunity Australia has to launch a globally-competitive space economy that will shape our presence in space for decades to come.
As Professor Peter Klinken said at the ASPI space conference, “The competition is global, not local. Don't waste time squabbling amongst yourselves.”