Getting ready for launch

How are businesses and government finding the funding and talent to launch into space? Connor Pearce reports.

The cost of launching a small satellite into space, today, can be between $25-150 million per rocket, according to Adam Gilmour of Gilmour Space Technologies. Although cheaper than previous generations of launches, which could cost billions of dollars, the cost of space operations is a significant barrier to entry, even if the promised rewards of a share in the $350 billion industry are high. To fund these space missions, Australian space enterprises are using a combination of methods to build their launch sites and get their devices into space.

Historically, the first source of funding for space has been government, since the initial explorations were made during the Cold War. In Australia, the role of state funding is not comparable to other established agencies such as the European Space Agency or NASA. With a more limited pool of funding, the Australian Space Agency has targeted its funding towards projects that may not be otherwise funded through commercial sources, according to deputy head of the Australian Space Agency, Anthony Murfett.

“For an Australian industry to participate in the global space economy, there are infrastructural requirements that are needed to help businesses to participate,” said Murfett.

These requirements are being funded through the $19.5 million Space Infrastructure Fund, announced as part of the 2019-2020 federal budget. This fund will support facilities that will allow manufacturers and space enterprises to test their products for space applications. This structural role sits in addition to the Agency’s remit to set the regulations and standards for the local space industry.

Acting as a facilitator for the local space industry, and with a mandate to triple the size of the space economy and create 20,000 jobs by 2030, the Agency has utilised its connections with other national agencies, signing memorandums of understanding (MoUs) with counterpart agencies in the UK, Canada, France and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). These agreements hope to deliver overseas investment opportunities for local manufacturers, partly shepherded through the Agency’s International Space Investment initiative.

Already, Australian space businesses are utilising their advantages to garner international investment. Lloyd Damp, chief executive of Southern Launch, said that, “Because space is a global market, it doesn’t matter where you launch from. It’s how you get to space that becomes the real driver for an international customer to come to Australia.”

Carley Scott, of Equatorial Launch Australia (ELA), highlights how a confluence of three factors made Australia attractive for ELA in wishing to set up launch facilities.

“Australia is an excellent location for launch for a number of reasons. At a national setting, we have really strong international trade relations. For our site, being so close to the equator, – if you’re about 15 degrees either side of the equator you get a tremendous boost from the rotational velocity of the earth – that will throw your rocket off more quickly. A very low risk profile allows us to achieve any orbit and a range of different trajectories quite safely,” said Scott.

Scott noted that the low population density in east Arnhem Land, and high-quality infrastructure – partly a legacy of mining in the region – as well as quiet airspace, makes the site on the Gove Peninsula attractive to international investors.

Sourcing funding from commercial sources for space start-ups, such as ELA and Gilmour Space Technologies, has been another focus of the efforts of the founders. Funding for new space ventures, such as Elon Musk’s SpaceX, has come through venture capitalists. With the venture capital market smaller in Australia than the United States, space enterprises have had mixed results in this field, with Scott having to look further abroad.

“The Australian investment community can tend to be quite conservative and also not practiced at new technology investment, which means that conversation for us takes place both in Australia and overseas,” said Scott.

CEO and founder of Gilmour Space Technologies, Adam Gilmour, added that the commercial proposition has to be water-tight for local investors to come on board.

“The trick has not been about getting the venture capital to understand how valuable space is, it’s been getting them to understand that you’ve got something different, and you’ve got something that’s going to work, and going to make a lot of money,” said Gilmour.

With these enterprises being the first to compete from Australia on the new international market of Space 2.0, Damp sees initial success leading to a further catalysation of benefits around the first crop of successful start-ups.

“A launch site becomes a centre of gravity that actually starts to suck in, for example, rocket manufacturers who no longer want to design or develop their rocket systems internationally and pay to transport them here. That means you start to develop a whole new industry around one critical piece of infrastructure,” said Damp.

However, such funding can only be garnered if those seeking it are supported by experienced and talented engineers, scientists and project managers. The lack of a significant space industry in Australia in the past has led to a brain-drain. Skilled graduates have moved overseas where opportunities in aerospace were richer. For those looking to set up in Australia now, this means that talent has to be acquired internationally and locally.

“You’ve got this fantastic area with highly skilled and educated workers who really could run a lot of the construction and maintenance processes that we have, but also, there are some skills where residents outside of Australia currently have stronger skills. In some instances, Australians do have very specific space-related skills, but they’re working overseas, because that’s where the opportunities have been historically riper, until now” said Scott.

Finding a base of talent that has applied experience has been a challenge that Gilmour is still working on.

“We’ve found that the graduates in the system are fantastic, but there’s just nobody with 10 to 20 years of actual space experience in this country. We’ve had to hire people from overseas who have been working on rockets for the last two decades,” said Gilmour. “What we’re trying to do is bring these people in at the top, and then train all the junior people who are coming out of Australian universities. Then, in three to five years’ time, we have a whole cadre of people with legitimate, hands-on experience building rockets.”

Just as manufacturers who may be making products for terrestrial applications can transfer their processes to the space industry, Damp sees a similar potential for acquiring the skills needed for a space industry.

“Australia actually has a large group of people who have skill sets that are transferrable into the space domain,” said Damp.

Beyond the requirements for those who are building the rockets and launch sites, Damp highlights that there are fundamentals, which although not covered in standard training programs, exist for space enterprises.

“Regardless of what the business is, you still need project management. For us in space,
it means we need someone who is willing to get outside of their comfort zone and take on the challenge of understanding how their particular skill-set could benefit the delivery of
a particular outcome,” said Damp. “Within space more generally, it’s a requirement
for people to go, ‘Actually, I’m going to have a go’.”