Fifty Years since our First Satellite—Highlights of Australia and Space

WRESAT – the first Australian satellite

Fifty years ago this month, Australia entered the space age. On 29 November 1967, we launched our first satellite at Woomera, South Australia. The Weapons Research Establishment Satellite, known as WRESAT, had an orbiting life of 42 days, and circumnavigated the globe 642 times before it ran out of battery. Its purpose was to provide scientific data on upper atmosphere physics. Planned, built and launched in just eleven months, WRESAT was a landmark in Australian science, and an early high point of the Australian space industry. Australia became the seventh nation to send a satellite into orbit and the third nation to both design and launch an orbiting satellite from its own territory. Videos of the design and construction of WRESAT are still available online.

It must be noted that WRESAT was not solely an Australian effort. The launch vehicle (a spare Redstone booster rocket from a previous research program) was supplied by the United States Department of Defence, and the Woomera launch facility arose from a joint project between Australia and the United Kingdom. NASA also played a key role in the development and tracking of WRESAT. Nevertheless, WRESAT was a considerable Australian achievement, and put the country forward as a viable contender for future space development. One key advantage for Australia compared to other middle league players, such as the UK and Japan, was a massive and sparsely populated land area for launchings, essential at a time when launch failures and falling rocket debris were a common occurrence. In Woomera’s heyday, the European Launcher Development Organisation (ELDO) was using the facility to launch a number of development rockets.

Australian space policy since WRESAT

The history of the Australian space sector is marked by periods of great achievement, such as the launch of WRESAT, and decades of limited funding and minimal strategic direction. Two years after WRESAT, Australia would play an important role in America’s Apollo 11 mission to the Moon, with the Parkes Radio Telescope Observatory in New South Wales functioning as a prime receiving station for the venture. A year later in 1970 Australia launched a satellite from the United States, known as Australis-OSCAR 5

Then, while many comparable countries continued to develop their space capabilities and tap into the growing space market, the wave of enthusiasm for space activities in Australia declined. ELDO rocket launching activities shifted to other countries, and for over a decade Australia’s space science and technology capabilities entered a ‘dormant state’, as described by the 1985 Madigan Report.

In response to the Madigan Report, and in order to revitalise the Australian space sector, the Federal Government established the Australian Space Office (ASO) and the National Space Program (NSP) in the late 1980s. About this time, there was briefly considerable enthusiasm for a spaceport in Queensland’s Cape York Peninsula, but for various reasons this came to nothing. According to a review released in 1992, the lack of funding for space activities (significantly less than had been recommended in the Madigan Report) was still limiting Australian progress in the field. The Government went on to establish the Australian Space Council in 1994, but then abolished it, along with the ASO and the NSP, in 1996. This left Australia with very little funding or Government direction with regard to space activities.

Research picked up at the turn of the century, as the Cooperative Research Centre for Satellite Systems (CRCSS) was created, and a new Australian satellite, FedSat, was designed, built and launched in 2002. Funding for the CRCSS then ceased in 2005.

In 2008, a Senate Inquiry into Australia’s space sector concluded that ‘Australia’s involvement in space science and industry has drifted and the sense of purpose has been lost’. The review recommended greater resources and the development of a plan for establishing a space agency. In response, the Government restarted investment in the space industry and established several programs, including the Australian Space Research Program. Following this, the Government announced Australia would be hosting part of the Square Kilometre Array telescope.

In recent years Australian civil space activities have been overseen by the Federal Space Coordination Committee, which is chaired by the Department of Infrastructure, Industry and Science, and has several members including the Department of Defence, Geoscience Australia and CSIRO.

Currently, analysis indicates that almost every sector of the Australian economy uses space-related products and services, and many aspects of daily life in Australia are underpinned by space-based technology and data. Despite this, with the exception of several small research satellites, we still rely on commercial and foreign country partnerships to access satellites and their data. Meanwhile, New Zealand, despite its small size, is taking advantage of the global space economy by strongly encouraging space industry and opportunities, such as the establishment of a private orbital launch range by private company Rocket Lab.

Next steps for the Australian space sector

There are still exciting prospects for expansion for Australia in several areas of the space sector, and already 2017 has been an eventful year for space in Australia. We have seen several of our small research satellites, known as cubesats, taken to the International Space Station (ISS) and then launched from there into orbit. A successful test flight of an experimental Australian hypersonic vehicle has been completed at Woomera. The Federal Government has announced that it intends to establish a national space agency and has also flagged future reforms to the Space Activities Act 1998 to update regulations and support space innovation. The establishment of a space agency in particular has been strongly supported by many in the research and space community.

These advancements may signal a revival of Australia’s interest in space-based technology and activities. With sufficient support and engagement, the next decade could be Australia’s opportunity to build on our space legacy, first laid down fifty years ago by the launch of WRESAT. 


Flagpost is a blog on current issues of interest to members of the Australian Parliament

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