Australia has always helped with other countries’ space missions, but it’s time we had out own space agency. (Neil Armstrong: NASA/AFP)
It’s not often that news of a government review fires the imagination and fills one’s heart with hope.
Such a thing happened on Thursday when Industry Minister Arthur Sinodinos announced that the Federal Government was looking into the establishment of an Australian Space Agency.
And while it’s merely a review, not a commitment, there are a bunch of reasons why it makes enormous sense for us to get such an agency up and running.
We’re in the right spot
For one thing, it’s a licence to print money: space money.
The fact we’re in the southern bit of the planet underneath Asia has long made us ideally placed as a relay station when the NASA bits of the planet are facing away from their missions — which is why Australia got the first pictures of the historic Apollo 11 moon walk before the US, and also got a heart-warming film out of it in The Dish.
The CSIRO’s radio telescope in Parkes, affectionately known as The Dish, is in an ideal place. (AAP/CSIRO)
It’s even better now because there are so many more players.
In the Apollo days NASA was the only non-Soviet game in town, but these days space science is all about collaboration.
Given our sweet, sweet spot on the planet’s less-crowded side, we’d be well sought after partners not only for NASA but the European Space Agency, the China National Space Administration, the Indian Space Research Organisation, JAXA and every other government agency looking upwards — and that’s before we get into the private space companies that are starting to enter the marketplace.
Commercially, providing a southern hemisphere staging ground with highly educated local staff would be an economic slam dunk.
There are side perks
Space exploration and pure science generally has historically offered an impressively high return on investment.
For every “b-b-but why are we spending all this money on nerd-stuff when we could spend it on [insert worthy project here]?” there’s examples like the tech behind wi-fi, which the CSIRO accidentally invented as it attempted to decipher messy signals from radio telescopes searching for tiny black holes.
The experiment itself failed, but accidentally created a CSIRO patent worth more than a billion dollars to the public purse.
It’s good for science
Space is such a cool area of science. All science is freakin’ amazing, but space is the perfect gateway science for young people wondering what might be an interesting thing to do with their lives.
There are rockets! There are robots! There are explosions! What kid doesn’t love that stuff?
Plug the brain drain
There’s also the fact that our wide, clear skies outside light-polluted metropolitan areas have inspired generations of Australian astronomers, cosmologists and astrophysicists to dedicate their lives to space, and therefore leave Australia because what the hell are they going to do here? Teach another generation of thwarted would-be space scientists?
Stopping our brain drain seems like a pretty savvy kind of a plan.
We’d be part of history
Right now is the perfect time to get involved because humanity is getting excitingly close to making some fundamental discoveries about our place in the universe.
Missions are being currently planned to explore some of the places which seem to have massive liquid water oceans beneath their frozen surfaces — Saturn’s moon Enceladus and Jupiter’s moon Europa — while NASA’s Hubble-replacing James Webb Space Telescope will have the capacity to analyse the atmospheres of planets orbiting other stars.
We could become the first generation to discover signs of life beyond Earth. Australia wants in on that sweet action, surely?
The dream of something bigger
And finally, and for my money most importantly, space exploration is just about the purest expression of humanity at its glorious, brilliant best — and at a time when division, cynicism, xenophobia and anti-science dogma is at an all-time high, now would be an excellent time to inject a bit of awe and inspiration about humankind into the public discourse.
Having people here that can talk about their work, articulate their research to the public — in the media as much as in Senate estimates — would do wonders for making science feel like living, breathing part of our national culture, rather than something egghead pencil pushers do in their ivory towers.
I want my infant son to feel that he can contribute to this glorious human project without having to move to another country, and I want his generation to thrill to the same sort of wonder and excitement that kids in the’60 and ’70s did, when science and technology wasn’t framed as a suspiciously left-wing element of our pointless, destructive culture wars.
If this government wants to build a legacy of which it can be proud, an Australian space agency will be one that goes to infinity — and beyond.