Australia, one of the few major countries without a national space agency, has decided to establish an agency to support the country's space industry. Credit: NASA

ADELAIDE, Australia — The government of Australia announced Sept. 25 that it plans to formally establish a national space agency, a milestone sought for decades by the country’s space industry and other space advocates.

Sen. Simon Birmingham, the Minister of Education for the government of Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, formally announced plans to establish the agency in a speech during the opening ceremonies of the 68th International Astronautical Congress (IAC) here.

Birmingham said the government was announcing plans to establish a space agency even though a review of the country’s space capabilities is ongoing and not scheduled to be completed for several months.

“While there is more work to be done in this review, from the extensive consultation process to date, one point is overwhelmingly clear: the case for establishing an Australian space agency is compelling,” he said. “So I am pleased today to announce that the Australian government will be establishing a national Australian space agency.”

The plan to create the agency was also announced by the government in a statement. “A national space agency will ensure we have a strategic long-term plan that supports the development and application of space technologies and grows our domestic space industry,” said Sen. Michaelia Cash, Acting Minister for Industry, Innovation and Science, in the statement.

The announcement contained few details about exactly when the agency will be established, how it will fit into the overall government and its specific roles and responsibilities.

“This agency will be the anchor for our domestic coordination and the front door for our international engagement with so many of you across the world’s space industries,” Birmingham said in his IAC address, adding that Cash would provide more details about the agency at the conference Sept. 26.

Jan Drobik, minister-counsellor for defense, science and technology at the Australian Embassy in Washington, hinted at plans to create the agency during a panel session in Washington Sept. 21 about international cooperation on orbital debris mitigation. He suggested the agency would be focused more on regulatory and coordination issues than major spaceflight programs.

Without a space agency “there’s not a single point of contact if you want to do space operations in Australia,” he said. He contrasted that with New Zealand, which has worked to establish regulatory regimes to support space operations, like launches by U.S.-New Zealand company Rocket Lab. “It’s made us come back and think.”

“It’s very much the regulatory and coordination role and then, hopefully, a vehicle for growth,” he said.

Australian government and industry officials welcomed the announcement of the planned space agency. Jay Weatherill, premier of the state of South Australia, which has a concentration of Australian space companies and related activities, announced prior to the IAC that the state would establish a space development fund, at Australian $1 million ($800,000) a year for four years, to support emerging companies as well as scholarships and training activities.

“This week, through our hosting of the Congress and establishment of Australia’s first space industry hub, we’re sending a clear and bold message,” he said. “We’re sending a message to the Australian government that, once again, we’re ready to put ourselves at the service of this nation for becoming a key part of a national space agency.”

Australia was, prior to this announcement, one of just two countries of the 35-member Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development without a national space agency, with Iceland the other. Space advocates in the country had long sought to establish an agency, arguing the country had failed to capitalize on achievements it made early in the Space Age, such as being one of the first countries after the United States and former Soviet Union to launch a satellite.

Michael Davis, chair of the Space Industry Association of Australia, said at the IAC that the decision to establish a national space agency was a major milestone for the country’s space industry, along with hosting the conference itself.

“Today, we celebrate two wonderful achievements: the hosting of the world’s most important annual meeting of the international space community, and Australia’s decision to participate as an equal member of that community,” he said.

“The planning for this Congress has coincided with a renewed enthusiasm in this country for the potential that space development offers for the future of our nation,” Davis said.

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...