This article first appeared in the Australian Financial Review on 19 June 2019
Fifty years ago, humankind landed on the moon for the first time.
The 50th anniversary of this extraordinary endeavour shows the monumental potential of humankind to achieve the impossible when the stakes are high, when global will is united, and when funding is available.
When future civilisations look back on the important milestones of human exploration and development, they will remember the steps taken by Neil Armstrong and his colleagues and mark them as the most significant over thousands of years. Other events that seem important now will fade with time.
Australia, always a world leader in radio communications infrastructure combined with the nation’s unique location on the globe, collected those vital and first signals beamed back from the moon mission to the Earth and did its part in marking that unique moment in time, for the whole world, in real time.
Here in Australia we mark another significant milestone – the one-year anniversary of our nation's own space agency. While we are operating at a slightly smaller scale today than an Apollo moon shot might require, there is no need to let issues of scale diminish our vision of where this journey can take Australia in the future.
Australia is in an enviable position in the new space economy. To understand why requires an appreciation of what space means today compared with 50 years ago. Cheaper access to orbital and eventually deep space through commercial platforms is fuelling the global return to the heavens.
The Australian community has responded with clear unanimity since the announcement of the agency. Inspired by the focus provided by the Australian Space Agency, a truly national effort, spanning industry, research and defence, we have begun to engage and exploit leapfrog research and test new industry development.
Global communications hub
Hundreds of million dollars in cash has been raised and invested over the past year on various space-related initiatives within Australia. This is a great start to earn those important runs on the board.
One example of where Australia leads is in the traditional role as a global communications hub. Now, instead of beaming grainy frames of astronauts on the moon, Australian researchers and industry alike are engaged in revolutionary quantum communications, pushing the very edges of physics to bring secure, high-fidelity bandwidth to global communications. Our work in Earth observing, in mapping resources to create a more sustainable future for our children, is also revolutionary.
But ongoing and sustainable success depends on emphasis on a national effort. All Australians should take pride when, say, Queensland becomes the space tourist capital of the world, or when, for example, Western Australia becomes a leading control centre for off-world mining assets. There is no one state versus another in this game. To paraphrase Benjamin Franklin, “either we hang together or we hang separately”. The closeness of the Australian community has been a key asset so far, and as our space industry expands, with political and commercial leadership, that spirit of collaboration will ensure continued success.
When the US landed its first astronauts on the moon, the US and the USSR were locked in a pitched battle to exert political dominance across the planet. Technology was a key driver in demonstrating that dominance, and landing on the moon was the ultimate expression of political will. Although technology still motivates us, the drivers to get back to space are different now. In a more complex world, we need to ask more sophisticated questions.
Again, Australia is in the right place at the right time to lead that discussion. We can bring a holistic approach to space exploration, factoring in the legal and ethical frameworks of cutting-edge research and technology. We can look to space, not only to learn through exploration, but to help solve problems here on Earth.
Australia is not a bit player on the world stage of space exploration. With careful cultivation and collaboration under the auspices of a well-funded and focused space agency, the opportunities are there, the talent is here, and the future is bright.
Professor Anna Moore is the Director of the Institute for Space at The Australian National University.