Watch this space: The International Astronautical Congress wrap – Washington DC, 2019

October sees the international space community convene for the International Astronautical Congress – an epic meeting of government, industry and academic leaders in the sector.

This year didn’t disappoint. Pence, Bezos, Shotwell all took the main stage with major announcements, demonstrating the importance of the sector to international economies, national security and everyday life.

If you weren’t able to join in person, let me take you through what you missed…

We saw four key themes running through the conference:

The industry has rallied around the United States’ vision to return to the moon in 2024 and go onto Mars.

Government partners have been quick to join the Artemis and Gateway programs that will see humans return to the moon in 2024 with full gateway assembly and sustainable missions by 2028. The Artemis program will then turn its attention to getting people to Mars.

Private endeavours are ready to support the programs and also pursue their own missions. Blue Origin announced their partnership with Northrop Grumman, Lockheed Martin and Draper to form a ‘National Team’. Others like iSpace and Astrobotic are also pushing ahead with mission dates locked in for their lunar landers in 2021.

Newspace companies have a greater presence than ever before – Spacebit, Offworld, Astroscale, Orbitfab

A range of private and venture backed companies grew their presence this year reflecting strong interest from investors in the sector. Astroscale and Orbitfab are focused on cleaning up space and extending the life of assets in space, while Spacebit have a dual focus on data (blockchain) and robotics (lunar landers) with a fully funded first mission in 2021.

Perigee, a South Korean rocket company, is nearing the end of their development and planning its maiden launch in 2020 from Australia with other launch providers including Rocketlab, Firefly and Gilmour all present.

The question is can all of these companies succeed and will venture funding continue at the current rate with long periods before return on investment is seen?

An increasingly political domain

China continues to be an unknown quantity, with their agency not represented on the Heads of Agency panel this year. At the same time there is a duality in the relationship the United States have with Russia. While the United States are solely reliant on Russia for human access to the International Space Station (ISS), there is also concern around their increasing military capabilities in space.

An ongoing challenge for the sector is how to engage with these countries to ensure our presence in space is sustainable and secure.

Australia – the Hon. Karen Andrews leads delegation

All Australian states and dozens of local space companies were represented at this year’s congress, with strong presence in the plenaries and high profile announcements with NASA, Japan and Maxar.

Australia is perfectly positioned on the global stage following the congress with key initiatives that can capitalise on this:

  1. Quickly define how the Artemis / Gateway $150m in funding will be spent and ensure is focused on key outcomes. Canada has benefited from their ‘Canadarm’ on the ISS – Australia could achieve similar success with the resources extraction technology or a rover on the moon.
  2. Continue to work with state governments on their key strengths and focus areas, to provide a unified international strategy and avoid competition between them.
  3. Explore how space applications can be used to solve the challenges of other government departments in Australia – e.g. management of the Murray Darling basin. This may result in additional funding which will provide contracts for both Australian companies and international firms that have established locally.

It is an exciting time to be ‘in space’ with enormous opportunities for business both locally and around the world. Watch this space.

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