Australia to fire its pork barrel into space

At a time when Australia continues to cut money from the public service, particularly anything focused on science or education, a space agency proposal smells more like pork than rocket fuel.
Written by Chris Duckett, Contributor

A Japanese space agency (JAXA) rocket

News that Australia is finally taking its place alongside the rest of the OECD, minus Iceland, and gaining a space agency was met with the sort of enthusiasm that only decades of disappointment could manifest.

But before we all get too carried away with thoughts of Roo-rockets or Pouch-habitation modules, it's worth remembering the times we are in, and the austerity that has followed.

It was only two weeks ago that the nation's premiere organisation for scientific research, the CSIRO, had faced another round of job cuts and will see its headcount fall by 57.

The Community and Public Sector Union wrote at the time that of the 57 people to go, 15 would be from Data61 -- its highly touted digital arm.

"Data61 has advised the Staff Association that the 'impacted teams are confined to the Communications systems group within the Cyber Physical Systems program which is comprised of small teams in the electromagnetics, microwave systems, communications and project management capabilities'," the CPSU wrote at the time.

"All of the positions identified are set to be cut from Sydney's Marsfield laboratory, home to Data61 and CSIRO Astronomy and Space Science researchers."

One can only assume that in the weeks leading up to the space agency announcement, the brains trust involved was of the belief that the idea of space communications, and particularly protecting information over the air, was a solved problem.

For the longest time, the Australian political class has been obsessed with the idea of holding back the "brain drain" of talent that leaves this country each and every year.

But waiving an entirely unfunded idea of a space agency is not going to make a lick of difference if the research ecosystem is continuously hit with further funding cuts. As so often happens to Australians with unfailing regularity, the tertiary sector is up in arms and fighting against prospective funding arrangements.

It is worth keeping in mind that not a single penny has been revealed as being set aside for this agency; in fact, the enthusiastic hordes will have to wait for the outcome of a review to know what the direction for the new organisation will be. When the report has been delivered, a clearer idea of whether the agency will get $32 billion or $3.20 a year in funding will be known -- but until then, it's a purely hypothetical argument.

Given the current statement of expectation the Coalition handed to NBN -- to deploy a nationwide network as quickly, and as cheaply as it could without more than a second's glance for futureproofing the thing -- it would be a brave call to think Canberra is going to hand anything like a blank cheque to a bunch of engineers and scientists that have been watching SpaceX launches and wishing they could play a part.

Rather than seeing Australian rockets headed beyond our world, it is far more likely to become a political football in the NBN mould.

Expect the highest order of pork-barrelling to accompany any announcement at the start of the Australian space agency saga. The reference point for this will be the submarine building in Adelaide.

Australia's much-maligned Collins-class boats needed a replacement, and with one former prime minister having given a wink and a nod to Japan that they would get the contract, his successor then announced Australia had decided to whack conventional diesel engines into a French nuclear submarine design.

The decision was not without criticism, as the former CEO of the government-owned Australian Submarine Corporation, Hans Ohff, wrote: "The government's choice of the Shortfin Barracuda Block 1A concept unites design and building risks, high program costs and an extended delivery schedule. And it's a decision that promises few or no capability gains."

The public heard little of this, as politicians from both sides rolled out the pork barrel and hailed it as jobs for Australia, even though the chosen French company will have almost twice the work than the 2,800 employee number bandied about locally.

As former Senator John Madigan famously said: "Submarines are the spaceships of the ocean". But in this instance, it is actual spaceships, and every politician will want to be pictured beside some plans and maybe a few models.

But the world has moved on from the days when space was a playground for nation states. SpaceX has contracts to serve the US Air Force, and is a great many years down the development and knowledge path than any Australia government effort could muster.

The financially prudent approach would to be latch onto SpaceX, and if the government really wanted to stump up some coin, potentially convince Elon Musk that launching from Australia is a great idea because tax breaks and subsidies are "agile, disruptive, and future focused", and to forget that Australia is a middle power that is a long, long way from almost everyone else in the world. Never mind that Japan, China, and India are much better placed to tap into the space race in Asia than Australia ever will be.

Geography dictates that this announcement is more likely to involve warm and fuzzy back slapping and rolling out corporate welfare that would make those involved in the submarine industry blush. It's very likely the pork barrel will find itself underwater and in space simultaneously.

And then there is Australia's recent track record in the world of technology.

Would you feel comfortable strapping yourself onto a rocket that had anything to do with the people or decision makers involved in the Census bungle, Centrelink's robodebt crisis, or the ATO's storage solution?

Perhaps it is for the best that we are more likely to buy rides with SpaceX than seriously create a high-tech government-backed manufacturing industry, although I would love to be proven wrong.

As the pork barrel looks to make its way into orbit, here's hoping Australia gains some decent research before the politicians see it as a funding hole and start to wind it back. If Australia can continuously cut away at a beloved organisation like CSIRO, and the US can hack away at its great space agency to the point it has to hitch rides with other agencies to the International Space Station, it would be wilfully ignorant to think it will not happen again.

Let's hope it is more serious than simply lip service to the cult of innovation.

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