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Interview – Radio National Breakfast

23 September 2019

Hamish Macdonald

Subject: NASA Moon to Mars program, space industry


Minister for Industry, Science and Technology Karen Andrews was interviewed on Radio National Breakfast.

Hamish Macdonald: Well Australia has hitched a ride on Donald Trump’s ambitious plan to send a human mission to Mars. The US President has directed NASA to return to the moon by 2024 and to then use the lunar landings as a launchpad for a seven-month journey to the red planet. During his visit to Washington, Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced a $150 million investment to help Australian businesses develop technologies that could be applied to the journey into deep space.

Industry Minister Karen Andrews has responsibility for the Australian Space Agency which has signed a memo of understanding with NASA. She’s on the line from the Gold Coast this morning. A very good morning to you.

Karen Andrews: Good morning Hamish.

Hamish Macdonald: This is NASA's Moon to Mars mission. Why does Australia want to be involved?

Karen Andrews: Well we've had a long and fairly close relationship with NASA in particular. So back in the days when we were instrumental in beaming the vision of Neil Armstrong taking his first steps on the moon, we've had that relationship with NASA. Now since we established the Australian Space Agency just over 12 months ago, quite frankly, that has opened so many doors for us and the relationship with NASA is really very, very close now. We have identified as a Government that the space industry is an emerging industry for Australia, currently worth about $4 billion and employing 10,000 people. Our commitment is to grow that, triple it in size by 2030 so that it's a $12 billion industry sector and employing additional 20,000 people. Now because we are…

Hamish Macdonald: …But just on that - we were relatively late to the game, as it were, in having a space agency. Are we playing catch up here?

Karen Andrews: Look, of course there's a little bit of catch up because NASA has been in place for many, many years. European Space Agency has also been in place for many years. So yes, there is a little bit of catch up. But look at how far we've come in about 14, 15 months. I mean it's just been an enormous effort by so many people. Clearly the Federal Government, but also state and territory governments, South Australia in particular has come strongly on board. The industry is so excited about the opportunities and of course this $150 million commitment takes overall the Federal Government's commitment to the space sector to over half a billion dollars. What that does is demonstrate to industry, to start-ups, to those looking at new and emerging technologies that we are serious about the space sector.

Hamish Macdonald: Okay. Let's talk specifics. In the Pilbara, for example, there are mine sites being operated remotely from Perth. Is that the sort of technology that we are thinking of saying to NASA – here, look at what we're doing?

Karen Andrews: Yes. So the next step for the Australian Space Agency is to talk to NASA about where we have technologies in place that could be used in their Moon to Mars missions and the things that are important to us are the automation and we will be focusing on that when we talk to NASA and of course, you've talked about the mining sector. So mines in the Pilbara are operated from Perth in many instances, 1600 kilometres away. So we will be looking at the automation, we’ll be looking at robotics, putting that on the table initially with our discussions with NASA and say, we are already world leading in these areas and these are the technologies that we'd like to work with you to further develop.

Hamish Macdonald: You make the point that the $150 million that the Government is flagging now is part of a bigger pool that totals something like half a billion. I mean, you look at the NASA budget of something like 21 billion and the cost of some kind of Mars mission - I think the figure I read was around 30 billion over the longer term. I mean what we're contributing is a drop in the ocean, isn't it?

Karen Andrews: Look we have a very different model for the Australian Space Agency to NASA. So our Space Agency was always established on the basis that yes, there would be funding from Government but it was a model that required input from industry. So we will be looking at engaging with industry as part of this $150 million fund to make sure that we are growing the sector in line with what our strategy was. So we're not competing with NASA on a dollar for dollar basis. We have developed our own space strategy based on what our capabilities are.

Hamish Macdonald: The mission is called Artemis or the project is called Artemis; the first leg is to return to the moon. The US President wants America back on the lunar surface by 2024, which would be at the tail end of a possible second term in the White House. Australia's astronaut Andy Thomas says that the deadline’s too rushed. But he's among many that sort of think it's a very difficult target to achieve. What do you believe is realistic timing?

Karen Andrews: Well the President of the United States has been very clear that he wants the US back on the moon by 2024. Look I think the important thing for us is that we work to that timeline. But look, if it’s not…

Hamish Macdonald: ...But Minister, do you think it's realistic?

Karen Andrews: Look, I can't answer that because we are in the very early stages of developing what that strategy is going to be. So the point that I was making Hamish, is that we need to aim for the 2024. But if that's not going to be realistic, if we do need additional time, then that's a very strong position that we should be pushing. We should be pushing for something realistic. But having said that, NASA- the US has been to the moon before, they have a lot of experience in the space sector; technologies have advanced significantly. I'm prepared to give it our best shot to get to the moon by 2024.

Hamish Macdonald: Andy Thomas also says that as a partner, Australia would have a moral obligation to advise the US if we thought the project was too dangerous or too ambitious. Would we, do you think be prepared to do that?

Karen Andrews: Of course. So yes, we would have our opportunity to say if we thought that there were risks involved. Look, space travel is a risky business, let's be realistic about this. But there is a lot of experience from the United States and from other countries. We will be building on the experience that the world already has in space travel and similar missions. But of course, if we thought that there was a risk involved in any part of the project we would say that, and as engineers - and let me put my engineering hat on here - that's what engineers do each and every day. They look at what the risk is, they manage the risk and they speak up and they come up with plans B, C, D and E.

Hamish Macdonald: Space travel tends to get people's imaginations running wild. What is the ultimate goal of this project? I mean are we talking about colonising planets. Are we talking about getting resources off them? What do you see as being the ambition here ultimately?

Karen Andrews: Well I see the opportunity to develop our technologies and to gain the experience that we will get from being part of such a mission. Now the example that…

Hamish Macdonald: …But I’m asking big picture. Why are we doing this? Why are we wanting to go to the moon and then use that as a launchpad to get to Mars? What's the big plan?

Karen Andrews: Because a lot of the technologies will be developed from what we learn from space travel and the best example that I think of where we’ve taken huge leaps is kidney dialysis actually came from the Apollo missions. So that was what was developed. Now that’s life saving.

Hamish Macdonald: So that’s the primary goal?

Karen Andrews: It's not the primary goal. We will actually be looking to find out more about what is out there. Exploration is a big part of it. We don't know what's out there. We don't know what we may well be facing in the future, so we'll look at what is on the moon. We'll look at the mining prospects. I mean that's already being discussed now that there may well be some mining on the moon. We’ll actually look at what the conditions are further on the moon, further on Mars and we’ll gather that information. But that will go hand in hand with the technologies and with also building Australian business capability because this is such an opportunity for Australia.

Hamish Macdonald: Okay. We have to leave it there, Karen Andrews. We’ve got to get to the news. We appreciate your time this morning. Thank you.

Karen Andrews: Pleasure.