Sep 25, 2017

Australia re-enters space, this time without burning up

After a long forgotten launch half a century ago this Australian space age looks like becoming a durable feast

Ben Sandilands — Editor of Plane Talking

Ben Sandilands

Editor of Plane Talking

WRESAT lifts off from Woomera in 1967

It’s been almost 50 years since Australia launched its own satellite WRESAT using an American rocket from Woomera, and then vanished after making a very brief appearance at the pointy end of the Cold War space race of the ’60s.

The launch, on November 29, 1967, came only months before the advent of the John Gorton led coalition government, which was also to nurture but then bury an intellectual level dalliance with becoming a nuclear power, both overtly through a uranium fuelled power station at Jervis Bay, and covertly through developing fast breeder plutonium based technology readily serving the development of nuclear weaponry capability.

Space, for Australia, became a matter of exporting talented scientists abroad and exploiting its geographical location to perform exceptionally useful satellite and space mission tracking tasks, headlined by the Apollo Moon expeditions, right up to the recent capturing of the dying moments of the Cassini probe to Saturn and its fabled rings and moons.

Until this morning that is, when Canberra announced there will be an Australian space agency set up to better pursue and promote in this country the enormous growth in the private enterprise space sector that has been exceedingly obvious in America, Russia, Europe, China, Canada, Japan, Korea, India, Israel, and indeed New Zealand, for all of this century.

This rush to recognition and relevance in matters Space by an Australian government is to be fleshed out in more detail by March 2018, at least according to indications from Canberra earlier today, but there is an International Astronautical Congress happening in Adelaide this week.

None other than Elon Musk, the SpaceX founder and force behind the Tesla electric cars and the coal fired power industry’s assassin will address the event. Government and Opposition worked out that they needed to say and do something on this occasion, and the result will be Australia actually becoming a state sponsored competitor in Space related industries. Will behind the scenes efforts to get Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull to debate the merits of ‘clean’ coal technology with Musk succeed? OK, that’s something this reporter offers as a contribution to fake news, but it would be worth any price for admission to such a no doubt civilised and reasoned dismantling of some of the most willfuly ignorant commentary on an important national issue to come from any still living PM.

There hasn’t been too much rational examination of the need for an Australian space agency in the media so far today, apart from this lucid editorial from John McDuling at the Sydney Morning Herald.

The space industries that economies like Australia’s can address do not of themselves command massively expensive manned space flight initiatives in terms of designing rockets and space transports, but are much more about the services that become possible using space platforms.

The faded and often blemished chemical photos that exist in various Woomera archives of the two successful satellite launches from this country are reminders of the very different world order that existed after the first space age began with Sputnik 1 and its surprise launch from the USSR on October 4, 1957.

The popular media perceptions of those early decades came from the realisation that satellite launch vehicles could also punt hydrogen bombs 10,000 kilometres between East and West in less than 45 minutes, or maybe only five minutes from a lurking submarine.

The commentary of those times was often similar in bombast to that offered today by Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump. Unfortunately, that brings us to the Military Space Age, which has in truth powered on largely behind the scenes even before 1957, and has been preoccupied, ever since the lunacy of nuclear exchanges were recognised about 40 years ago, with laser type ‘death rays’ which could be used to destroy launched nuclear armed missiles. (Once their weight and potency goes respectively down and up by several orders of magnitude.)

An Australian space enterprise agency will add to the momentum already building in the sector in this country. It may also result in Australian governments getting seats inside the tent when very serious (and lucrative) international projects involving space mining of captured asteroids and space based manufacturing or power generation ventures take form.

Australia is several generations of talented scientists late in coming to the party. But it will be worth it.

The second and last satellite launch from Woomera, the UK’s Prospero in 1971
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4 thoughts on “Australia re-enters space, this time without burning up

  1. Roger Clifton

    Remote sensing – the observation of the earth itself – has turned out to be most commercially valuable activity evolving out of the space industry. Australian science has been involved in the application of incoming data, benefiting Australian environmental monitoring, mineral exploration, agriculture et cetera. But it is time for an Australian Space Agency to be putting in space instruments designed specifically for Australian needs. But the launching vehicles will have been fully developed and mass produced, somewhere else.

    Bomb makers have long since moved on to using enrichment facilities instead of power stations for their raw material. Meanwhile, in many countries, nuclear power stations have been getting on with the much more boring job of competing with coal and gas. When we get round to decarbonising with plug-and-play nuclear power stations, they too will be fully developed and mass produced – somewhere else.

  2. ggm

    Fond memories of old British sci fi with optimistic manned launches from Woomera..

    All written before black arrow was written off, presumably part of the contract which scored the royal Navy Polaris, in return for getting shaggers back being totally screwed by the yanks on everything else. Australia’s space science pissed up against the wall!

  3. comet

    Military and war play a role in the advancement into space.

    The Apollo program was somewhat a result of the cold war that raged at the time. Russia and the US vied for space superiority.

    The same goes for Australia’s town of Woomera. A product of the cold war, then left abandoned for decades after the cold war – a ghost town with empty science buildings with broken glass.

    But war is not usually the stated aim, even if it is the real reason for governments to invest in space.

    Australia invested in nuclear technology with the Lucas Heights reactor. The stated aim was always to produce medical isotopes. But the real aim was to keep our scientists in the nuclear game so we’d retain the know-how to become a military nuclear power if the need arose.

    Is it a coincidence that 2017 is the year North Korea made specific threats about launching missiles at Australia? After previously ignoring space, the Australian government suddenly wants some skin in the game.

  4. 777 Steve

    Reminds me of the previous Australian space programme to get to the moon first.
    So the story goes Australia had the best scientists, the best astronaut candidates along with a real competitive spirit to get there first. The public it was also right behind the venture.
    Imagine then the shock and horror when it was learnt that the Americans got there first and the Russians weren’t that far behind…how did this happen when Australians were soooo far ahead of everyone else?
    The Ozzies it seems we’re still briefing the departure whilst the Americans had landed 🙂
    The Oz space programme will have plenty of Oztranoughts ready to write another chapter in space exploration history….just ask anyone that has to fly with one!

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