Thursday, September 12, 2019

The 1980s – the missed link in the story of Australia in space: a note

The discussion and sometimes euphoria over the re-establishment of Australia’s space programs has been marked by a total neglect of the attempts to re-establish an Australian Space Program in the 1980s. Discussion slides from the 1960s or early seventies straight to the present time; it is though the 1980s did not exist. And yet, the 1980s were marked by a considerable push including the failed establishment of new institutional structures.

When the grand new initiative began, I became very annoyed at what I saw as the effective re-writing of history; neglect amounts to rewriting. I was also annoyed because the discussion failed to recognize the individuals who tried so hard. Then during the clean-out of my papers prior to the move to Armidale I found a box of documents on the 1980s’ attempts.

That box has disappeared for the moment, lost in the pile of boxes in the garage. It will re-appear in due course, allowing me to write a better documented account. For the moment, I just want to record some of the key events, recognizing that without documentation I may get things wrong including the spelling of names.

Australia’s withdrawal from space has been much canvassed in current discussions. Australia had an active launch site and a not-inconsiderable space sector. In Sydney, Hawker de Havilland employed some 4,000 people in its space division. When the British abandoned its independent space program, Australia had a chance to join ESA, the European Space Agency. This move was opposed by France which had its own plans and saw Australia as a threat to those plans. There was also little support domestically. The then Menzies Government saw it as a waste of money. The net effect was an unwinding of Australian involvement in space and our not inconsiderable space sector.

By the start of the 1980s, things had begun to change. Four factors contributed to this:
  •  Barry Jones, the newly appointed Minister for Science and Technology in the Hawke Government, supported by Deputy Secretary Roy Green, began a space push. This led to the setting up of the Madigan Inquiry, While this proceeded, Jones and Green attempted to use Section 39 funds, part of the IR&D grant scheme, to fund Australian involvement if space projects
  • Meantime, the Department of Industry and Commerce, concerned that the industry policy focus was too dominated by support for cot-case industries, established a new branch (the Electronics, Aerospace and Information Industries Branch) to chart new directions in the high technology sector. I was charged with responsibility with setting that branch up. We focused early on the role that space might play in developing not just the aerospace sector but Australia’s high technology industries in general
  • There were moves in CSIRO too. The Division of Radio Physics under Bob Frater supported by Colin Cooper had not lost its interest in space and supported increased Australian involvement in space. Ken McCracken, head of Minerals Research and a dedicated believer in the value of space based remote sensing began a push to create a special space focused centre within CSIRO. There was growing interest in the universities too where researchers were experimenting with new space focused technologies
  •  In industry, Hawker de Havilland had not forgotten its previous role and supported the push led by (among others) Peter Smith and Stan Schatzel. Stan had had a long involvement with Australian space activities. There were also a growing number of small space related start-ups.
A number of initiatives resulted:
  • We began a series on industry consultations aimed at identifying opportunities and impediments and to gather support for new space initiatives
  •  In CSIRO, Ken obtained endorsement to create a new committee to examine CSIRO’s role in space of which I was a member. This resulted in the creation of the CSIRO Office for Space Science and Applications headed by Ken, supported by Christine Astley Boden
  • A new Australian Space Board was created headed by Bruce Middleton to develop new program activities.
These various moves would finally fail. The reasons for this deserve exploration as does the whole story. In essence, the climate in Canberra was changing. These space initiatives were seen as yet more special pleading for industry subsidation. I remember a frustrating meeting at Treasury where I finally said in frustration how do I satisfy you? David Borthwick carefully explained about benefit-cost analysis. It was actually quite a helpful response, but my problem was that benefit-cost analysis deals with the known, while I was doing with the what might be. I could explain linkages, show where I though benefits would come, but I was really very reluctant to attach numbers or risk assessments. From my perspective, I could show benefits, but so long as we were in the right ball-park precise quantification was meaningless.

When I get my box of papers I will write more. For the moment, I simply wish to assert that the new Australian Space Agency is not the first Australian Space Agency, that what happened in the 1980s deserves to be remembered.

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