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6 mins read 21 May 2021

Show Me The Money - Federal Budget Recognises Importance of Space

In some welcome news, the Federal Budget for 2021-22 provided for some additional funding for the Australian Space Agency, but the importance of women in STEM was recognised as well as we work towards a gender-inclusive society…

A satellite in low Earth orbit. Australia is making a rapid transition to join the global space economy with startups like Gilmour Space Technologies, Saber Astronautics, and Fleet Space.

The announcement of measures taken in the Australian Federal Budget for 2021-22 included an injection of cash for the Australian Space Agency and more funding for the Australian component of the Square Kilometre Array Telescope. But is it enough?

Now, space is an expensive business. By some estimates, the Apollo program that placed the first human being on the surface of another planetary body cost the equivalent of $200-billion in today’s figures.

But Australia isn’t in a race to send astronauts off to collect alien rocks. Rather than focussing on space exploration, our priorities are to leverage our competitive strengths and develop a high-tech local industry. And that is happening.

Not that there won’t be any space exploration involved, as our partnership with NASA on the Moon to Mars initiative proves. But don’t expect that the Australian Space Agency will be receiving the kind of funding that NASA enjoys – in excess of $30-billion per year, or about 0.5% of the total annual spend by the United States.

But, in typical Australian fashion, we are kicking big goals with a comparatively paltry amount of funding. Our local space technology start-ups have been busy developing innovative technologies, forming partnerships with global companies like Boeing, and preparing to launch their own satellites into orbit.

Space, though, isn’t just about spaceships. Astronomy and science are fundamentally important in enabling more tangible technologies, and Australia plays an important and unique role in a leader in global science as well.

The Square Kilometre Array is just one example. When completed it will be the world’s most powerful radio astronomy facility, and will likely change our understanding of the Universe.

Funding Australian Space

The Australian component of the Square Kilometre Array received funding of over $387-million over the next 10 years. Credit: CSIRO

And the government has just committed more than $387-million to the project over the next 10 years. Watch this space, because if treasury predictions of the creation of over 350 jobs during the construction phase with a further 230 ongoing positions come to fruition, there are a lot of young Australians that are going to see the benefits of this investment directly impacting their bank balances.

The Australian Space Agency was established in 2018 and the 2018-19 budget provided for an initial $41-million for its establishment and to promote the growth of the space industry. Though further funding has been provided through the space infrastructure fund, established to support targeted growth in the Australian space industry, the first budget delivered during COVID-19 didn’t provide for any significant additional support.

But the 2021-22 budget promises another $13.3-million to the Australian Space Agency over a period of four years. That will allow it to increase its regulatory and technical advisory capacity under the Space (Launches and Returns) Act 2018. It will do this under the leadership of Enric Palermo, the former Chief Operating Officer at Virgin Galactic and President of The Spaceship Company.

Mr Palermo took up the position as Head of the Australian Space Agency on 28 January this year and succeeds the inaugural Head, Dr Megan Clarke AC.

If Australia is to become a significant player in the global space industry, it will be our best young minds who get us there, regardless of gender. Under the leadership of Dr Megan Clarke, the Australian Space Agency established a tradition of promoting gender equality, and it encourages industry to highlight the impressive work of women who are leading at the front or from behind the scenes.

As one of Australia’s most respected and best-known astrophysicists, Prof Lisa Harvey-Smith is well aware of the problems faced by young women trying to make an impact in STEM-related fields and was made Australia’s Women-in-STEM ambassador in 2018. To help her support our next generation of female space professionals, she has been given $600,000 in funding over three years to develop an evaluation toolkit to help attract, retain and progress girls and women in STEM.

And that is not all. Some $42.4-million has been allocated to support over 230 women to pursue higher STEM qualifications by co-funding scholarships in partnership with industry.

Supporting the Next Generation

The Australian Space Agency received an additional $13.3-million in the 2021-22 Federal Budget. Credit: Australian Space Agency

Currently, only 16% of Australia’s STEM-skilled workforce are women, and they are still being paid nearly 25% less than their male counterparts. There is no doubt that this inequity needs to be addressed to the benefit of all of us.

Prof Harvey-Smith’s charter is to promote awareness of STEM careers to young people, parents and carers, and to work with educators to challenge gender stereotypes and promote inclusive and engaging STEM education for all. Already the Office of the Women in STEM Ambassador has visited over 40 schools and engaged in more than 200 hours of outreach activities, reaching nearly 18,000 educators and young people in the process.

It’s worth pointing out here some of the barriers to career progression faced by girls and women when pursuing a career in a STEM-related field. It begins during primary and secondary schooling, where few role models exist, and cultural expectations may be difficult to circumvent.

Even after becoming qualified there are still flawed recruitment practices to overcome, and still a scarcity of flexible work arrangements to account for the requirements of half the population. Not only that, but most senior positions are likely to be held by men who need to actively be involved in removing discrimination and sexism when making decisions about career progression, pay and conditions.

This is something we are all working on as a society, and in a utopian future, we can envisage a situation where both genders are treated fairly based on competency alone.

But back to the original question. Is the additional funding for the space sector announced in the 2021-22 budget enough? Well, more, of course, would be better, but you can guarantee that as Australians we will be getting value for money.

And that will be important as Australia, and the world, transition towards the new space-based economy.