A Look Back at the Australian Space Effort

By Robbin Laird

At the recent Williams Foundation seminar focused on Australian space held on December 1, 2021, the conference started appropriately enough with a look back at the history of Australia’s engagement in space activities. The Australians have been involved in the space activities of their key allies, first Britain, and then the United States from the dawn of the space age.

That involvement has been based on Australia’s key geography and strong alliance relationships. As Australia moves to the next phase of its space efforts, the focus is upon being proactive and shaping the new space efforts which have generated by Australia’s key allies. But by being deeply engaged, notably with the United States, Australia can shape its own capabilities with knowledge of how the United States is shaping its way ahead in space as well as providing interactive knowledge with the United States and Australia’s allies of the evolution of adversarial space efforts as well.

In other words, a proactive Australian space effort is informed not only by leveraging new commercial opportunities generated by the new space enterprises globally, but by understanding of how the United States and Australia’s key allies are evolving their own military space efforts as well. It can be an informed innovative leveraging and insertion capability within the evolving space enterprises for the liberal democracies. And within such a context, Australia can expand its role going forward.

In part, this opportunity is based on Australia’s geographical location vis a vis the core space competitors for the liberal democracies. The history of Pine Gap is a case in point.

The noted Australian strategist, Paul Dibb, in his book Inside the Wilderness of Mirrors provided the most complete look to date on Pine Gap and its role in the Australian-U.S. working relationship with regard to space and intelligence.

As Dibb noted about his first encounter with this site: “We are going to patch you through to listen to the Soviet Northern Fleet Commander in Severomorsk talking to Naval headquarters in Moscow’. It was 1974 and I had just been appointed Head of the National Assessment Staff and I was on my first visit to Pine Gap near Alice Springs. You can imagine how impressed I was to be on the receiving end of this intelligence from a Rhyolite satellite that was 35,000 km away from Earth and with an intercept antenna more than 20 metres in diameter. Later second-generation Orion satellites had an antenna exceeding 40 metres in diameter.”[1]

Even though the numbers of Australians involved in Pine Gap has been clearly very limited, this type of engagement by Australia puts it at the head table of evolving U.S. capabilities and thinking, a key aspect for shaping any forward leaning proactive Australian space policy going forward.

At the seminar, Amy Hestermann-Crane of the Williams Foundation and an analyst with the Royal Australian Air Force provided the historical overview.[2]

She noted that the main thrust of Australian space policy has been regarding the military side and that was based on working with Britain and then with regard to the United States. Notably, Britain used Australian territory for its nascent ICBM program and then the Americans with regard to the use of Australian geography for space tracking and control. But over the past decade, there has been more Australian involvement in civil space, as realization of the role which such space plays in the national economy and society has grown.

She noted: “Although Australia has been involved in various space endeavors since the 1940s, it cannot be said that we were a proactive participant. Just a short look at our space history shows that we were motivated in strengthening relationships with historic and emerging allies, as well as gaining access to potential national security benefits from developed project capabilities”

Britain after World War II shaped the Woomera Research Establishment in 1946 to establish a highly classified location for the British ICMB and Rocket Development Project that lasted nearly three decades. She underscored that “the Establishment remained under the control of Defence through the Department of Supply and is now under RAAF control as the Woomera Range Complex”

With the British essentially abandoning the Blue Streak program, the United States then became the key space partner for Australia. “In 1956, a request was made to the Australian government to assist in the tracking of U.S. rockets and satellite launches. This request stressed the scientific benefits of the partnership, yet with Woomera being suggested as the first location for a facility, it was the Defense Committee which was asked for comment.

“The Committee recommended approving the ground tracking station due primarily to the military significance if the United States managed to find success in their satellite program. And by 1957, the station was operational and supported the launch of the first U.S. satellite, Explorer 1, in 1958. A second facility was built in nearby Woomera in 1969 and continued to support the U.S. Defense Surveillance Program until its closure in 1999.”

The NASA Deep Space Communication Centre in Tidbinbilla gained fame by supporting the Apollo landing in 1969 just a few years after its establishment. And “the United States also supported the development and assembly of Australia’s first satellite alongside British and Australian organizations, and WRESAT was launched in 1967. It was designed to increase the understanding of upper atmosphere effects on the weather and the climate, as well as gaining physical data for U.S. research programs.”

“Australia further signed an agreement in 1966 to establish the joint defense space research facility known as the Joint Defense Facility of Pine Gap. And at the time, the Australian government promoted the military and scientific benefits that this facility would bring but failed to reveal the project’s support for United States intelligence collection.”

The next major development for Australian space was involvement with the British when the moved on from Blue Streak to a program to develop civilian launchers. “Britain went to Commonwealth and European nations with a proposal for a civilian launch program. Australia was the only Commonwealth nation to join this program, and it was under the condition that Australia only provide facility support. Australia wasn’t excited by the civilian research prospect, but instead was motivated to recuperate financial investments in Woomera and the Blue Streak program.

“Several nations did, however, answer Britain’s call and formed the European Launch Development Organization, otherwise known as ELDO. It was formed with Britain, Germany, France, Italy, Belgium, and the Netherlands, all of whom were responsible for various rocket segment development. Australia as a full partner only provided access to Woomera, and thus the Blue Streak Project founded the Europa 1 launch vehicle.

“From 1964 to 1970, the project culminated in a total of 10 launches for Europa 1. However, there were five launch failures. However, by 1970, ELDO members no longer wanted to continue using Woomera as its launch facility and Australia provided Darwin as a secondary launch facility. However, this was also rejected by the organization.

“As such, ELDO moved to French Guiana, offering Australia the possibility of remaining as a full organization partner despite no financial contribution. However, the Australian government saw little value in this civilian research program, especially once it moved offshore, and it declined to remain part of the ELDO organization.”

“Australia’s quiet space years can be considered from the late 1970s all the way through to the 1990s. The use of foreign satellite capability for military use was still beneficial for our needs and it didn’t place any undue financial burden on the government. Australia was still motivated by national security and had not yet realized the commercial benefits that space offered. There were several attempts at establishing a commercial launch facility. However, none succeeded.”

in this period,. the Space Activities Act of 1998 was written and promulgate. “This legislation, which has undergone several amendments in recent years, still forms the basis for Australian and international organizations to obtain various licenses for space-based objects, launch activities, and reentries.”

She concluded that Australia is now shifting to a more proactive space effort, and one which highlights both commercial and military space. This period can be dated from 2018 with the establishment of the Australian Space Agency which is tasked with growing Australian space industry.

“We have relied on foreign satellite capabilities because it was cheaper for our government to do so. We were able to progress forward as a military in that manner. And it’s only been in the last few years that we’ve understood that the space industry and civilian research is fundamental and integral to Australian life.

“The militarization of space has allowed space to be cheaper. We are experiencing a booming startup industry with universities and industry and military, all being able to get involved in different space capabilities and creating greater possibilities for a sovereign capability.

“And such capability is critical so that if something goes wrong in the future or our alliances change, we’re going to be able to still rely on our own capabilities that are integral to every facet of Australian life. This ranges from education to water control and in the bushfires that happened last year earth observation satellites were an important part of the effort to deal with brushfires, and obviously the military and its ability to used space for communication, for guided kinetic systems and for intelligence and national security.”

[1] Paul Dibb, Inside the Wilderness of Mirrors (MUP Academic, 2018).

[2] https://www.linkedin.com/in/amy-hestermann-crane-1403b81b5/?originalSubdomain=au.

Also, see the following:

Shaping a Way Ahead for the Australian Space Enterprise