Australia, it's time to commit to an Australian Space Agency

The Labor Science Network is preparing a report analysing the benefits of Australia establishing an Australian Space Agency. The LSN firmly supports this policy proposal and believes political leadership is required to make it a reality.

Australia’s engagement with space is broad, covering a range of ‘direct’ space-related activities, such as space science, space industries and satellite/communications technology, to ‘indirect’ activities that rely upon the space sector or space-related infrastructure, such as communications and surveying satellites aiding navigation, land management, defence, disaster relief, agriculture, mining and transport.

Objectives of LSN Space Agency report

A primary aim of the report is to analyse the broad objectives of Australia’s participation in the space by asking the following questions:

  1. What are Australia’s space policy objectives and are they sufficient to guide Australia’s national interests in space? What exactly is it that Australia, via both its public and private sectors, hopes to achieve by its engagement with space.
  2. Who are the stakeholders in Australia’s space sector and what are their interests?
  3. How are these policy objectives currently being implemented across the sector?
  4. What is the optimal way of achieving those objectives given resource constraints?
  5. What level of consensus is there around different ways of achieving these objectives?
  6. In what way would an Australian Space Agency improve attainment of those objectives?
  7. Who is in favour or not in favour establishment of an Australian Space Agency and why?
  8. What would an Australian Space Agency actually look like and how would it be implemented?
  9. How much would it cost to establish, what would be its forecast economic benefits and how would its effectiveness be measured?

The paper focuses on how an ASA would improve Australia’s national interest in the space sector compared with the ‘counterfactual’ scenario of continuing to not have a centralised agency. The establishment of an ASA is comparatively ‘low-hanging fruit’ in terms of good public policy: several inquiries into Australia’s space sector have already examined Australia’s space sector, reviewed comparative nations’ space policy, recommended establishment of a coordinating government agency and set out the pathways for how this would be done. In a sense, the ideas and route forward are fairly well laid-out.

This paper looks at how the establishment of an Australian Space Agency would facilitate achievement of those underlying objectives in a more productive and efficient manner. In part, the utility of an Australian Space Agency depends on the objectives selected.

Why is an ASA a good idea?

The main arguments in favour of establishment of an ASA concern the positive impacts that integration of Australia’s public space sector administration would have for the space sector and nation as a whole. The gains can be categorised in terms of:

Efficiency gains from integration: from having a centralised administrative body to coordinate and administer space-related policy across the space sector and across sectors impacted upon or presenting the opportunity for utilisation of space technology.

Enhanced opportunities from integration: for development of the space sector that the presence of an ASA would foster and which would be unlikely to develop sufficiently or within sufficient time-frames in absence of an ASA.

Taking Australia’s space policy objectives (discussed further below) as given, the most persuasive arguments in favour of establishing an ASA are that:

Strategic benefits of centralised space bureacracy: Australia’s cross-government space activities and policies would be better managed by a separate institution with its own budget and capacity to act.

Most other developed nations have a separate space agency to coordinate their space sector activities and investment: over 70 nations having space agencies suggests a benefit for the achievement of those nations’ space objective in having an agency rather than disparate assortments of public and private institutions.

A space agency has economic and sector-development benefits: comparable international experience, particularly from the United Kingdom [and Canada] has demonstrated the economic benefits that an integrated space agency can facilitate. The argument here is that an ASA can provide enhanced coordination and collaboration between government, industry and the research community that enhances economic opportunities in a way that is greater than in absence of an agency.

International experience suggests that establishment of an agency would allow Australia a number of opportunities:

Self-reliance and control over deployment of space technology: an ASA would assist Australia to develop its own space infrastructure and thus be less reliant upon the largess of other nations, particularly when it comes to reliance on international satellites for our resource management or disaster relief. The argument here is that many of the benefits of the space sector are akin to public goods whose provision must be backed by government (directly or indirectly) because the market has not and would not provide them itself.

Increased international participation in space ventures: participate in international space activities which would be of economic benefit to Australia, such as via access to tender for contracts and grant Australia access to international infrastructure on its own terms as a vested participant, rather than benefiting due to informal relationships with other nations such as the United States.

An ASA would be cheap to set-up and have low overheads. Establishing an ASA would be relatively low-cost to do by adopting a process analogous to the UK’s model of space sector integration, (whereby disparate space sector functions were integrated into the UK’s Space Agency) at low cost:

How it would be done & estimated cost: the first stage of establishing an ASA would be relatively low-cost. Following the UK model, the process would be to gather space experts into a single agency. Further expenditure to build on the growth of the ASA would follow as opportunities arose.

Economic value to Australia: based on assumptions regarding the UK model, it would be estimated that the value of greater development facilitated via a committed space program via an ASA would be in the order of several billions of dollars and create potentially thousands of jobs.