Australia's Space Journey

Never lost, now charting a course



Brett Biddington


This article builds on a paper published in the August 2021 Edition of Space Policy, with the title "Is Australia Really Lost in Space?" [1]. The paper exposed the myth that Australia had a 'Golden Age' in space that was later squandered by a succession of governments that refused to invest in the Australian space program.

Central to the Australia’s Golden Age was a joint UK/Australian project conducted at Woomera between 1948 and 1980 [2]. An important claim about the Golden Age is that Australia was the third nation to build and launch a satellite, WRESAT, from its sovereign territory. Conveniently overlooked, WRESAT was launched on a modified US Redstone rocket that had been brought to Australia to support the joint Australia, UK, US Sparta program and that became surplus to the program’s needs [3] [4].

An important legacy of Australia’s early involvement in space activities is institutional. The Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO), Australia’s equivalent of MI5, was born from damaging leaks from the highest levels of the Australian Government to Moscow. ASIO’s Official History notes, “The Government’s main concern [in 1947] was the guided weapons testing range to be established at Woomera in northern South Australia” [5]. The second institution was a dedicated and well-resourced Defence science and technology organisation called Weapons Research Establishment (WRE) in the 1940s, which is now known as the Defence Science and Technology Group (DSTG).  

Australia’s space journey is best understood through the lens of two enduring and inter-related policy drivers:

  • Geography (location and large size; small population, concentrated in large coastal cities).
  • Alliance relationships (and the secrecy, bred of the Cold War, and continuing today, around Defence and broader national security space programs). 

External pressures, more than internal vision and understanding, have forced a succession of Australian Governments to pay increasing public attention to space matters. Happenstance and incrementalism describe Australia's space journey. There has been no Damascus Road miracle leading to a national space vision.




Australia is the sixth largest nation by land area in the world with a small population of 26 million [6]. Most people live close to the coast with a small number of large cities. Sensors on the continent see parts of space that cannot be observed from the northern hemisphere. Remote areas are profoundly radio quiet making them highly desirable sites for radio observatories and for ground stations that support US, European and Japanese space science initiatives.


Alliance Relationships

As a loyal member of the British Empire, Australia supported the early space endeavours of the UK by making available vast tracts of sparsely populated territory for missile development and testing. In passing, little official care or consideration was given to the indigenous peoples whose lands were commandeered [7]. From the 1960s Australia accommodated numerous US requests to support its civil and military space programs. As such, ground stations were built across the country to support the Gemini and Apollo programs as well as NASA’s deep space missions. However, except for the Canberra Deep Space Communications Complex (CDSCC), located at Tidbinbilla near Canberra, the rest have long closed [8] [9]. 

Since the early 1970s, Australia has hosted ground stations that support US satellite programs vital to that nation’s national security. Two of the most important were the Joint Defence Facility, Nurrungar (JDFN), near Woomera and the Joint Defence Facility at Pine Gap (JDFPG) near Alice Springs in Central Australia. Initially characterised as conducting ‘deep space research’, both stations were shrouded in secrecy and very few officials held the security clearances and briefings that allowed them to know what the facilities did. 

JDFN supported the US Defence Surveillance Program (DSP), designed to give the US sufficient notice of Soviet missile launches that could indicate a first strike in a nuclear war against the US [10] [11]. Nurrungar closed in 1999 with the ground reception function transferred to a Relay Ground Station (RGS) located at Pine Gap. Today, data passes seamlessly from satellites via the RGS to a mission control station in the US [12].  

JDFPG supports intelligence gathering satellites and has been described by Kim Beazley, a former Australian Defence minister and Ambassador to the United States, in the following terms:  

The facilities are no longer simply a price paid for broader Western interest and the broader alliance. Activity at the bases is an integral part of the Australian military and intelligence communities’ order of battle. Their removal would not simply diminish US direct capabilities, they would diminish Australia’s, leaving a gap Australia could not replicate technologically, let alone afford to replace [13].

Writing much earlier than Beazley, noted academic Desmond Ball, with reference to these and other US facilities, spoke of Australia in a book of this name, as a ‘Suitable Piece of Real Estate’ [14]. Echoing this sentiment, a former NASA representative to Australia, Dr Neal Newman, summed up the reasons for NASA’s commitment to Australia thus: “Australia is there, bare and fair” [15].

Space is the long pole in the US alliance tent and an essential element of the Five Eyes intelligence cooperation arrangements that emerged from WW2. Successive Australian governments have been prepared to accept an implied nuclear guarantee from the US as a fair trade for allowing these facilities to be located on Australian soil. This point has never been well explained or built into a national space narrative available to Australians at large. 

In a word, Australia’s space story is bifurcated. The essential part of the story since the end of the 1940s, has been the national security element that has been, and still remains shrouded in secrecy. Beyond providing real estate, and a small workforce that supports Australia’s interests in the Joint Facilities, Governments would claim to have gained much with minimal investment.

The second element of the story is the public narrative. Advocates for a space sector, ignorant of the equities involved in the national security domain, have asserted lost opportunities and have argued for public investment in a national space industry for the nation’s good [16]. The focus invariably has been on upstream space activities – the design construction, launch and operation of satellites [17]. Advocates tend to ignore that most space-related jobs are ground-based and involve managing services and processing data from satellites. Australia’s diverse interests have been adequately, but not ideally, met by the access to services and data provided by satellites owned and operated by others. Governments have calculated, with the national security elements covered, that the opportunity costs of investing in a national space industry have not been justified. Not all nations can afford to do all things and not through neglect, but rather through conscious policy choice, successive Australian governments have chosen to invest in other social goods ahead of space [18].

2009: A Tipping Point

Part of the Rudd Labor Government’s response to the Global Financial Crisis (GFC) of 2008-9 was to establish a dedicated Space Policy Unit (SPU) and an Australian Space Research Program (ASRP) [19]. The space genie was out of the bottle. The ASRP wound-up, with no follow-on funding, in June 2013, just ahead of the Federal election that saw Labor removed from office and replaced by a Coalition Government, led by Tony Abbott. An immediate impact was that such progress that had been made in space industry development under Labor ceased.

However, other forces were in play. The Space Industry Association of Australia (SIAA) led a successful bid to host the 68th International Astronautical Congress (IAC) in Adelaide in 2017. 

The Congress was a catalyst for change. The government understood that many heads of the world’s space agencies, as well as senior space company executives, would attend the IAC. All would have just one question: why does Australia not have a space agency? This was a question to which the government had no good answer. To avoid national embarrassment, Simon Birmingham, a Minister based in South Australia, was quickly deputised to announce at the Opening ceremony of the IAC that Australia would have a space agency from 1 July 2018 [20]. 

The Agency was stood up with a specific jobs and growth mantra. It was charged to triple the size of Australia’s space industry sector; to have it grow from an AU$3-4 billion industry, employing 10,00 people in 2017-18 to an AU$12 billion industry, employing an additional 20,000 people by 2030 [21]. Whether these numbers have any chance of being achieved is moot and maybe does not matter. In 2021, the Australian Academy of Science (AAS) prepared a paper about Australia’s space workforce. This paper noted that for the target of 20,000 new jobs to be realised, Australia’s universities would need to produce 300 new scientists, 900 engineers and 800 non-STEM graduates each year for ten years. These graduates would be over and above the numbers needs to support and sustain other areas of the economy which, already struggle to find qualified and experienced staff [22].

The Agency is developing a series of sector roadmaps and is working closely with the Department of Defence on matters of common interest. It is growing in size (in terms of people and budget) and is becoming an established element within the Australian civil space ecosystem.

Defence and Sovereign Capability

In parallel with civil and commercial developments, Defence has come to understand that space is an operational domain that will require investment in skills and capabilities distinct from military satellites that support and enable operations in the sea, land and air domains. Reflecting this reality, Defence, in March 2022, stood up a new Space Command, as a joint organisation, under the command of the Chief of the Air Force in his capacity as the domain lead for space within the Australian Defence Force [23]. In time, the Command, which was initially called a Division, may well morph into a fully-fledged Space Force [24].

In parallel, prompted by  current difficulties with China and weaknesses in Australia’s supply chains that have been exposed by the COVID-19 pandemic, the Australian Government has taken steps to strengthen Australia’s self-reliance and resilience. Six manufacturing sectors deemed crucial to  Australia’s national interest, including space and defence, have been identified for targeted investment [25]. 

In 2021, The Standing Committee on Industry, Innovation, Science and Resources of the House of Representatives conducted an extensive inquiry into the state of the Australian space sector. A key finding was that Australia lacks a nationally coherent approach to space policy, strategy and coordination [26]. Defence, the space agency and other Commonwealth departments and agencies would seem to be working well together but other interests are at cross-purposes. This is especially evident in the competition between the States and Territories to attract space start-ups to their jurisdictions with scarce regard to the possibility of duplication and to the capacity of the market to sustain myriad overlapping activities.  

Space is a profoundly dual-use domain which may severely limit the prospects of enhancing the tiny domestic Australian space market with exports. A somewhat gloomy conclusion, if this judgement is correct, is that many of the Australian space start-ups will struggle to survive once the government grants that have allowed them to develop their technologies and capabilities cease. The big money in space in Australia, for the moment, is in Defence. Private equity, with a few exceptions, would not seem convinced about the long-term viability of an Australian space industry except possibly as the provider of niche capabilities to the global Primes.

The recently defeated Coalition Government of Scott Morrison explicitly committed, in its March budget, to a AUD1.3bn civil satellite remote sensing program designed to strengthen the sovereign capabilities of Geoscience Australia, the Bureau of Meteorology and CSIRO (Australia’s national civil laboratories) [27]. The incoming Labor Government led by Anthony Albanese is not expected to make any significant changes to the policy settings of the previous government with respect to space.

Only hours after being sworn in as Australia’s 31st Prime Minister, Mr Albanese, flew to Tokyo for a face-to-face meeting of the leaders of the Quad nations (Australia, India, Japan and the United States). Space was discussed by the four leaders, including a satellite data sharing arrangement to assist Pacific Island nations to better protect their fisheries from illegal fishing activities conducted by mainly unlicensed Chinese vessels [28].

At the start of the space age, and mentioned at the beginning of this article, Australia, the UK and the US worked on a joint space project called Sparta. In 2021, the three announced a new security pact, AUKUS [29], the initial purpose of which is to permit the UK and the US to share nuclear submarine propulsion technology with Australia.  However, the pact is extending to other activities, including in space. This is a back to the future moment for Australia. To make best advantage of the opportunity, a coherent policy, strategy, narrative and workforce plan will be an essential first step.  This is the most important and urgent challenge with respect to space that the Albanese Government will face in the months ahead.


About the Author

Dr Brett Biddington AM is the founder of Biddington Research Pty Ltd, a consulting company specialising in space and cyber security policy development and advocacy. He previously worked for Cisco Systems and before that served in the Royal Australian Air Force in intelligence, security and capability development roles, including in space. He is a member of the National Committee for Space and Radio Science of the Australian Academy of Science and Chair of the Advisory Committee of the Victorian Space Science Education Centre (VSSEC). He is an Adjunct Professor in the Security Research Institute at Edith Cowan University in Perth.



[1]          B. Biddington, Is Australia Really Lost in Space? Space Policy, 57 (2021) 101431.

[2]          P. Morton, Fire Across the Desert: Woomera and the Anglo-Australian Joint Project, 1946-1980, Department of Defence, Canberra, 1989, reprinted 1987.

[3]          P. Morton, Fire Across the Desert: Woomera and the Anglo-Australian Joint Project, 1946-1980, Department of Defence, Canberra, 1989, reprinted 1987.

[4]          K. McCracken, Blast Off: Scientific Adventures at the Dawn of the Space Age, New Holland,
Sydney, 2008.

[5]          D. Horner, The Official History of ASIO, 1949-1963, Vol 1: The Spy Catchers, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 2014, p. 42.

[6]          B. Biddington, Space Security in the 21st Century:Roles, Responsibilities and Opportunities for Australia, PhD Thesis, UNSW, 2019.

[7]          P. Morton, Fire Across the Desert: Woomera and the Anglo-Australian Joint Project, 1946-1980, Department of Defence, Canberra, 1989, reprinted 1987.

[8]          K. Dougherty, Australia in Space: A History of a Nation’s Involvement, Space Industry Association of Australia, ATF Publishing, Adelaide, 2017.

[9]          CDSCC website,, accessed 5 Mar 2022.

[10]        J. T. Richelson, America’s Space Sentinels: DSP Satellites and National Security,
Kansas University Press, US, 1999.

[11]        D. Ball, A Base for Debate: The US Satellite Station at Nurrungar, Allen and Unwin, Sydney, 1987.

[12]        B Biddington. Personal involvement - a member of the team that negotiated the terms and conditions under which RAAF personnel would be employed within the SBIRS control centre in the United States.

[13]        K. Beazley, Sovereignty and the US Alliance, in P.J Dean, S. Fruhling and B Taylor (eds). Australia’s American Alliance, Melbourne University Press, 2016, p217.
[14]        D. Ball, A Suitable Piece of Real Estate: American Installations in Australia, Hale & Iremonger, Sydney, 1980.
[15]        N. Newman, was NASA’s representative in Australia from 2002-2006.  He frequently used this phrase in public talks and private conversations.

[16]        J. Kingwell, “Punching below its weight: Still the future of space in Australia”, Space Policy, Vol 21, Issue 2, May 2005.

[17]        GAP, Australian Space Initiative: GAP Taskforce Report, Global Access Partners, Sydney, 2017.
ug2017.pdf. Accessed 24 October 2018.
[18]        DITR, Australian Government Space Engagement: Policy Framework and Overview (Revised), Department of Industry, Tourism and Resources, Canberra, November 2006.
[19]        DIISR, Budget 2009-10, Super Science – Space and Astronomy Department of
Innovation, Industry, Science and Research, Canberra, May 2009.
[20]        S. Birmingham, Opening Remarks, 68th International Astronautical Congress. Minister for Education. Accessed 27 November 2018. Accessed 25 September 2017.
[21]        M. Cash, Media Release, Minister for Industry. Accessed 3 February 2019.
[22]        AAS, Space Industry and the STEM Workforce, Australian Academy of Science, Canberra, 2021,, accessed 5 Mar 2022.
[23]        Minister’s Address to RAAF Air and Space Conference, Canberra, 22 March 2022.
[24]        Defence announces Space Division,, Department of Defence, Canberra, accessed 5 Mar 2022.
[25]        Modern Manufacturing Initiative,, Department of Industry, Science, Energy and Resources, Canberra, accessed 5 Mar 2022.
[26]        SCIISR, The Now Frontier, Developing Australia’s Space Industry, Standing Committee on Industry, Innovation, Science and Resources of the House of Representatives, Nov 2021. 
[27]      Budget: Australia will build and operate 4 new satellites, Space Connect Online,, accessed 26 May 2022.
[28]        Quad to unveil new spy satellite initiative to curb illegal fishing, Space Connect Online,, accessed 26 May 2022.
[29]        Prime Minister, Joint Leaders Statement on AUKUS,, accessed 5 Mar 2022.