David Bowie aptly captured the human curiosity ignited by space with the release of his hit song Space Oddity in 1969. The song, about the launch of Major Tom, a fictional astronaut, was popular during a period of great interest in space flight. During this time, The United States’ Apollo 11 mission launched and is still celebrated today as the world’s first manned moon landing.
Popular culture is filled with references to both the intellectual and spiritual inquiry we invest in space, with the ultimate human endeavour being to leave our planet in search of extra-terrestrial life.
Today, space is an economic opportunity. In Queensland, the state government is invested in helping the industry to grow its niche — but globally competitive — space economy.
A report that focused on this growth opportunity was prepared by Deloitte Access Economics (Deloitte) for the Queensland Government in February 2019. It highlights that the state’s competitive advantages lie in its geographic location. This provides unique opportunities for space systems, launch activities, ground systems and space-enabled services. Entitled Sky is not the limit, the report states that the industry directly employs around 2000 full-time-equivalent jobs (FTEs), contributing half a billion dollars in value to Queensland’s economy (2018–19).
Excitingly, by 2036 Queensland’s space economy could support up to 6000 jobs and add between $3.5 billion to $6 billion to the state’s economy.
Peter Kinne, Board Member of the Spatial Industries Business Association, fondly remembers being a Grade One student, herded into a classroom to watch Neil Armstrong walk on the moon.
“It was absolutely a defining moment for everybody. And then, during the 70s, was the launch of Star Wars movies and so I was one of these blessed people, that I’ve had all of these touch points through my life,” Kinne says.
“The industry is full of really, really smart people doing very innovative things.”
Adam Gilmour, Co-Founder at Gilmour Space Technologies, one of the state’s leading space companies, is one such innovator. He says he and his brother, company co-founder James, have been interested in space their entire lives.
“(I was) born right after the Apollo missions and James, in the era of the space shuttle. I started looking at setting up a space company 10 years ago while I was still a banker,” Gilmour says.
“So, we started the company in 2012 and started building rockets in 2015.”
It is a complex and rich industry that includes more than just rockets, with many of the state’s leading industry members, like the Gilmours, inspired by the mystery and magic of space from their early years. Using their expertise and the state’s and local universities’ considerable long-term investment in space research, they are taking the industry to the next level.
Professor Michael Smart, the Chair of Hypersonic Propulsion at the University of Queensland, says it’s a really exciting time for space right now and explains how the industry has changed and grown.
“It used to be all massive rockets and old infrastructure. Now it’s such an opportunity in this, what they call space 2.0, which is small satellites, lots of opportunities for small businesses,” Professor Smart says.
He is excited to be working on a reusable launch system based on scramjet technology, where the combustion chamber is specially designed to operate with supersonic airflow.
“We spent 30 years developing this technology. It’s different from a rocket in that it’s more like an aircraft and so we’re going to fly to space, launch a satellite and then just fly back and land. Next week we’ll be able to do the same thing again, so it’s a completely different way of going to space”
Local Queensland business Black Sky Aerospace, like Gilmour Space Technologies, is at the forefront of the opportunities presented by space 2.0. Director of Operations Blake Nikolic concurs with Professor Smart about the potential for small business success in this state.
Nikolic says that manufacturing is a big part of Black Sky Aerospace’s business, but so is access to open land, an important requirement for test launches.
“Having larger land masses and supportive land owners is very crucial to being able to do those activities as well. Having been based here such a long time, we have set up a lot of infrastructure on the ground to be able to achieve those activities, and so manufacturing is probably core, but then having some of those launch activities is also of benefit,” Nikolic says.
So, watch this space because, as the Deloitte report suggests, this is an industry where entrenched competitive advantages arise as a direct result of decades of investment in specialised capability. It’s not an industry that can be built overnight. The competitive advantages of Queensland’s space economy in 2030, 2050 and beyond will be a direct result of the decisions made today, with both government and industry playing an important role in shaping the future growth-path for this industry.