It might surprise you that Australia doesn’t already have a space agency.
The country has been involved in the space field for decades — in 1967, it was among the first countries to launch a satellite. Two years later, a NASA tracking station in Australia received and transmitted the first TV images of Neil Armstrong taking the first steps on the Moon.
Now, after years of lobbying from scientists, the Australian government has announced that it is launching a space agency.
“The global space industry is growing rapidly and it’s crucial that Australia is part of this growth,” acting Minister for Industry, Innovation and Science Minister Michaelia Cash said 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.”
The government, led by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, has provided few specifics about the program. At a Monday news conference, Turnbull described it as a “small agency designed to coordinate and lead.”
Turnbull’s political rivals in the Labor Party have been critical of the lack of progress in creating a space program. They point out that Australia is one of just two countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development that doesn’t have a space program. (The other is Iceland.)
“Unless this changes, Australia risks being left behind in a rapidly growing key global industry of the 21st century,” Labor’s science and research spokesman Kim Carr said in a statement.
Carr said that Australia “depends on space more than any other country in the world,” using satellites for produce deliveries, banking, mobile services, and disaster relief. He adds that Australia currently holds just 0.8 percent of the global space industry, which is generally valued at more than $320 billion annually.
Australia’s position on the globe makes it “ideally placed as a relay station when the NASA bits of the planet are facing away from their missions,” an opinion piece carried by Australia’s ABC News argues. “Commercially, providing a southern hemisphere staging ground with highly educated local staff would be an economic slam dunk.”
At this point, the country’s space industry is a “grassroots movement across a small number of companies, university groups, and the defense sector,” astronomer and astrophysicist Lee Spitler of Australia’s Macquarie University tells Science.
The U.K. launched a space agency in 2010, and now “captures a 6.5% share of the global space economy,” according to a report published by South Australia’s defense agency. It says that in a similar time frame, an Australian space agency could bring in $4.17 billion and create 11,700 jobs.
The Australian government says it has appointed a group of experts to review the options for the country’s space industry and write a charter.