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Blog: Australian space industry: concrete pads and coffees-to-go?

By Adam Gilmour

Gilmour Space Bowen Orbital Spaceport, Australia
Gilmour Space Bowen Orbital Spaceport, Australia

There is a space treaty being proposed in Parliament right now that sounds innocuous, but has the potential of being the biggest speed-bump/handbrake or ‘own goal’ for the Australian space industry.

Tabled in Parliament on 28 February, the Technology Safeguards Agreement (TSA) between Australia and the United States essentially allows US rockets and satellites to be launched from Australian launch sites. Its purpose is to protect US launch technologies in Australia, and it comes with many strings attached.

But first, some definitions:

  • The TSA defines “launch activities” as including “…all actions associated with the launching from within the Territorial Jurisdiction of Australia of US Spacecraft, Foreign Spacecraft, or Australian Spacecraft by means of US Launch Vehicles…from the initial technical discussions to the launch and return of the US Related Equipment and US Technical Data”.

  • In the US International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR), Part 121 lists orbital launch vehicles in Category IV and includes: (1) Rockets, SLVs, and missiles capable of delivering at least a 500-kg payload to a range of at least 300 km (MT)…; Fixed launch sites and mobile launcher mechanisms for any system enumerated in paragraphs (a)(1)As ITAR would apply to the TSA, this suggests that both orbital vehicles and the launch sites they launch from are covered by the TSA.

  • The TSA also talks about “segregated areas”, meaning “areas within the Territorial Jurisdiction of Australia… where 1) access will be limited to only persons designated by the Government of the United States of America, and 2) on an uninterrupted basis, US Persons can monitor, inspect, and access, US Launch Vehicles, US Spacecraft, US Related Equipment, and/or US Technical Data for purposes of conducting Launch Activities”.

What does all this mean in practice?

Firstly, these US rockets must be fully manufactured by US companies; and for the most part, fully assembled in the US. An entourage of US citizens must arrive in Australia with the US launch vehicle to ‘guard’ their rocket technology and launch site. A fence must be put up around the vehicle assembly building and launch site, allowing only US citizens to operate, prepare, and launch the rocket. And any Australians allowed inside the fence (on Australian territory) will need to wear a special badge clearly indicating that they are not a US citizen.

In fact, Australians can have nothing to do with the launch vehicle, supply no parts to it, nor be involved with the launch activities. Even the launch tower and fluid system (part of the launch site equipment covered by ITAR) must be shipped from the US and kept out of bounds to non-US citizens – not great news for Australian launch site operators who would be restricted from providing value-added mission or launch-related services to their US customers.

In essence, Australia’s role would be limited to renting out concrete pads and providing morning coffee to our American friends as they walk into their secured site… So much for “supporting growth across our local supply chain and opening new doors for high skilled tech jobs and supply chains in Australia”.

But there’s more. The TSA clearly states that any money that the federal government makes on the deal cannot go towards helping Australian companies work on launch technology. Not just orbital rockets, but suborbital vehicles as well, including long-range hypersonic vehicles.

In many ways, the TSA puts Australian companies at a comparative disadvantage. On the approval side, for example, US rockets would need launch approval from their Federal Aviation Administration (usually given within 3-6months) as well as some kind of rubber-stamp or approval from the Australian Space Agency, with the latter costs borne by Australian taxpayers. If our Agency were to take longer to approve Australian launch vehicle permits compared to the FAA (to date, our ongoing application has taken 18months), then Australian launchers will be at a severe disadvantage compared to US launchers who will effectively get to their Australian launch pad first.

As an Australian-owned company that is close to providing world-class orbital launch capability, our biggest concern is that the Australian Government will decide to launch Australian Government/Defence satellites on US vehicles, as opposed to Australian launch vehicles… and call them ‘sovereign launches’ from Australia.

Don’t think it can happen? The UK government signed a TSA with the US in 2021 and called last year’s Virgin Orbit launch from the UK a ‘sovereign launch’. This is a US company that manufactured their vehicle, fluids, and ground support systems in the US… and then flew it all from the US, along with a team of US citizens, to conduct the launch.

Meanwhile, Australian launch companies are prohibited by US law– from launching US government satellites. By failing to acknowledge Australian-owned sovereign capability from companies like Gilmour Space, our government is endangering hundreds of high-tech and high-value Australian jobs that are raising our economic complexity, contributing to our nation’s economic bottomline, engaging with over 300 Australian suppliers, inspiring our next generation, and driving advancements in space manufacturing in the country.

As a globally-focused launch services company, we expect to compete with US (and other) launch vehicles for our global customer business. Unlike in Australia, however, US space companies get hundreds of millions of dollars in US government funding and early-stage contracts (e.g., SpaceX won a US$800+ million contract after its first successful launch).

To level the playing field, we would need the same/reciprocal rules here, where Australian government satellites are mandated to be launched on Australian-owned launch vehicles; or where Australian launch vehicles are allowed to launch US government satellites.

The ‘National Interest Analysis’ that was attached with the TSA in Parliament lists some reasons why Australia should support the TSA. Instead, it should be read as reasons why the government should be supporting the local launch industry.

  • The document highlights the global space sector’s US$464billion revenues in 2022, projected to grow to $1.1trillion by 2040… That’s a good reason to support the Australian space industry, and not just invite other countries to take over.

  • It acknowledges the US as having the largest and most advanced commercial space launch market… This reinforces the need to support Australian space companies in competing and gaining global market share (directly benefitting Australia’s economy).

  • The analysis mentions the tripling demand for satellites… thus emphasising the need to support Australian-owned launch companies. Indeed, this is one of the reasons why we have been successful as a venture-capital-backed company in Australia.

  • It notes that US launch vehicles currently dominate Australian satellite launches… but this could well change once Australian owned launches commence. It also overlooks the fact that India and Arianespace have launched many Australian satellites as well.

  • It highlights Australia’s unique geographical position to capitalise on the global commercial space launch sector, emphasising the potential with Australian rockets… It fails to mention that European and other rockets can also launch from Australia without the associated constraints.

  • It claims the TSA will provide a wide range of benefits to Australia’s space sector, but this seems misleading as the agreement prohibits the sharing of technology… The nature of these purported benefits remains unclear.

  • The analysis further suggests that the TSA will expand the market for Australian companies and uplift the entire space sector, creating new opportunities for high skilled tech jobs and supply chains… However, the reality is that technology is entirely brought in by the launch providers, and they are not permitted to share it. There will be no high-skilled tech jobs if we’re just watching from outside the gate. And what about all the high-tech jobs that are in Australian space companies, right here and now? (We are hiring btw.)

So, what are the implications of signing this TSA? No technology transfer, severely limited revenue opportunities, and direct competition for local Australian-owned launch companies that are just starting to commercialise their world-class tech.

What if we choose not to sign the TSA? We open the door to technology transfer and full collaboration with other space nations such as Japan, Korea, Europe, the UK, India, Israel, and more, all of whom can also utilise launch facilities in Australia. We can engage in joint projects, offer full service launch facilities, collaborate on launches, and charge for their use without the constraints of ITAR restrictions. The global space community is eager to collaborate with us, and we shouldn’t impede those opportunities.

At very least, we need a fair and level playing field for our Australian companies.

Adam Gilmour is CEO and Co-Founder of Gilmour Space Technologies


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