Although it recommended creating a national space agency, the Senate Standing Committee on Economics has taken a rather hands-off approach on the development of a full-scale commercial launch complex:
“While not opposed in principle to Australia regaining its role as a launch site if a commercial venture wishes to do so (whether for satellites or tourists), the committee does not see this as likely, nor as something the government should be supporting with taxpayers’ money.”
The committee identified a number of factors that could make it difficult to develop a commercial launch complex in Australia, including high development costs, the relatively small size of the still emerging space tourism market, and competition from other nations.
The committee looked at the Woomera facility in South Australia, which it says was once the second most utilized launch complex in the world. It heard conflicting testimony about how suitable the facility is for major launch operations:
“A possible reconciliation of these views is that Woomera is currently not suitable for large scale launching of orbital payloads (for which launch sites closer to the equator are desirable) but suitable for smaller suborbital launches and testing. The Australian Space Research Institute has been a regular user of the Woomera rocket range since 1993 giving students the opportunity for involvement in over 100 smallâ€‘scale launches using ‘sounding rockets’.”
Woomera has allowed researchers to conduct experiments on scramjets under the Australian Hypersonics Initiative. Hypersonic technology could lead to cheaper re-usable orbital launches and cut travel time between continents to about an hour.
The committee found that Australia is having success in this area, attracting money from America. It quotes Dr. Richard Morgan of the Centre for Hypersonics as predicting major advances during the next decade or two:
“There is the unmanned mach 7 one. Maybe we could do that in about five years. If you then look at making it as a transport for intercontinental travel it would be maybe another five to 10 years after that. If you are actually looking at part of a boost system to orbitâ€”it all depends on the funding of courseâ€”it would be in the 10- to 20-year time frame.”
The standing committee also noted that Australian researchers had made advances in other propulsion technologies. “An ANU [Australian National University] team has recently developed two revolutionary designs for rocket engines; an ion engine and a plasma engine. The work has attracted interest from the European Space Agency,” the report states.
Space elevators are another area in which Australia could play a leading role in the future, the committee said.
“The Indian Ocean off Western Australia has been identified as an ideal location for a ‘space elevator’; a thin carbon nanotube connecting a barge to a space station, along which supplies could be carried up. Construction could draw on the WA oil industry’s expertise in constructing offshore platforms, as well as its material resources. NASA is currently investigating the feasibility of the project,” the report states.