Where to for Australia’s new space agency? Lessons from the UK.
One of the striking observations at this year’s Farnborough Airshow was just how much of the show was now dedicated to space business. It’s been eight years since the UK Government took the brave step of creating its own Space Agency with ambitions of securing 10 percent of the globes space business. By 2018 I saw clusters of new British space businesses drawing excited crowds and making bold announcements around sovereign launch facilities.
How did this happen? And might Farnborough be the guiding vision for Australia’s space industry at the 2024 Avalon Airshow?
So what has the UK done?
The UK Space Agency was established in March 2010, replacing the British National Space Centre. Some £230 million of funding was then provided, growing to over £400 million today. Its mission was described as “Improving co-ordination of UK efforts in fields such as Earth science, telecoms and space exploration” but as you speak to stakeholders today there is the clear sense that the UK Agency exists to build and accelerate UK space businesses.
Prior to the creation of the agency the space industry in the UK was estimated to be circa £6 billion in revenues supporting 68,000 jobs. Underpinning this business growth ambition the UK’s 20-year aim is to increase their industry to £40 billion and 100,000 jobs; and to represent 10 percent of worldwide space products and services (a 4 percent increase).
To achieve this the UK has focused on relationships, business accelerator-style seed funding and challenges. It’s continued to be a large financial supporter of the European Space Agency (ESA), noting the advantageous ‘invest-back’ commitments ESA provides to members – including associate members like Canada.
Why is this relevant to Australia’s newly announced Space Agency?
So much of the UK circumstance and journey resonates with Australia. We both start as small players in a globally mature space sector. We imagine a similar vision of business growth facilitated, not owned, by government and we have established agencies to own and drive the strategy. The difference is the UK is 8 years ahead of us.
Prior to 1 July 2018 Australia was the only OECD country without a space agency. Announced 25 September 2017 at the International Astronautical Congress in Adelaide, Senator Simon Birmingham announced the Australian Government would launch a national space agency, and more recently that Dr. Megan Clark is appointed the agency’s first head.
As part of the Australian Government’s 8 May 2018 budget announcement, $26m in seed funding over four years from 2018 was included to establish the Australian Space Agency, with a further $15m for international space investment starting from 2019.
What could Australia learn?
- We need to remain focused on the long term and not become disenchanted if progress seems slow at first. The UK have been at it for longer than just 8 years; in 2010 they drew on the British National Space Centre’s earlier work to kick start the organisation.
- Political leadership seems to have been a key for them, particularly when securing budgets. A government minister with a strong personal interest in space and its importance to our future; a champion to act to protect the nation’s small investment in space when the pressure is applied.
- If the ambition is to accelerate business, then maybe the lesson is to get UK-Australia space business-to-business coaching and collaboration underway early. It will be tempting to think of the engagement element of Australia’s space strategy as one between governments and agencies. The more powerful – quicker payoff – channel may in fact be the carefully crafted business-to-business engagement, allowing Australian companies to rapidly learn what it took UK companies 8 years to learn.
The question around Australia’s investment, or otherwise in ESA will be answered by Dr Clark and her team. Regardless there will be a set of trade-off’s to be made that will leave some stakeholders nervous or disappointed. But I’ll reflect upon the 2018 Farnborough Airshow and the array of UK small space businesses, working with universities and global primes stepping up to challenges, like sovereign UK medium payload launch, and generally providing the new energy in the aerospace sector.