Last year’s budget allocated $41.2 million over four years for the Australian Space Agency and the government injected an extra $19.5 million into the industry this year through a new Space Infrastructure Fund.
By comparison, the National Gallery of Australia will receive $66 million this financial year, and the Australian Institute of Marine Sciences about $45 million.
The Australian government will spend $15 million on the space sector this year – a fraction of NASA’s $30 billion annual budget.
Professor Andrew Dempster, of the Australian Centre for Space Engineering Research, agreed the agency was starved of funds.
“You’re not going to get anything done with that sort of money,” he said.
Professor Anna Moore, the director of the Australian National University’s Institute for Space, said the agency had been doing a “fantastic job”.
“The only thing it needs is money,” she said.
“But to go from a standing start to where they are now, they’ve gone extremely well. It’s great to have that front door, that advocate.”
Some scientists – and the government – argue the agency’s small size allows Australia to easily react and adapt to a rapidly changing industry that is expected to be worth more than $1 trillion by 2040 and eventually deliver the world’s first trillionaire.
“Since we established the space agency last year, doors have been opened and we have been invited in to talk to the likes of the European Space Agency and, very importantly, NASA,” Ms Andrews told The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.
Under the leadership of former CSIRO chief executive Megan Clark, the agency has signed memorandums of understanding with Canada, the United Kingdom, France and the United Arab Emirates, and launched talks with top mining companies on how the private and public sector can best work together to mine the moon.
It published a 10-year plan for local industry in April that forecast promising growth not just in space mining but robotics, space law and space debris management.
“We know that there is a lot of space debris up there now – even small fragments can cause massive damage and can take out a satellite,” Ms Andrews said, in a scenario depicted in the Oscar-winning movie Gravity.
“That’s going to be one of our priorities.”
Brad Tucker, of the Australian Asteroid Mining Mission, said the nation’s first small steps into the space industry were promising.
“It was never going to be NASA,” Dr Tucker said. “I think that the money would always be nice, but so far it’s been about more than the money. It’s a signal that Australia is serious as a space state and it’s a signal to our overseas partners that we will support them.”
“And by being that front door – that needed bureaucracy – it has been able to provide that coordination and provide that opportunity. It could always be bigger and better, but we do have to give credit for what has been happening.”
Max is a journalist at The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.