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Mission affordable: SpaceX launch could open the final frontier for business

Lift-off of the Crew Dragon, set to happen at 6.33am on Thursday morning Australian eastern standard time, marks the first US-crewed launch from the States since 2011, when the space shuttle program conducted its last mission. Since then, the US had relied on Russia to ship astronauts to the International Space Station.

The SpaceX project shows “the commercial market doing something that even 15 years ago people wouldn’t have thought possible,” says Professor Anna Moore, director of the Canberra-based ANU Institute for Space.

Its real appeal is that it makes space launches much more affordable, and the Australian Space Agency “can morph itself around the idea of cheaper launch,” said Moore.

The SpaceX launch is estimated to cost around $US55 million per astronaut per ride, less than the $US86 million charged by Russia.

The Crew Dragon launch will be the “final major step” before NASA’s Commercial Crew Program can certify the SpaceX craft for long-duration missions to the space station.

Great expectations: a CubeSat at the Australian Space Agency.

Great expectations: a CubeSat at the Australian Space Agency.Credit:ASA

Falling costs of launch have allowed the ASA, like other young agencies in the world, to focus on commercialisation of space in a way that was impossible a generation ago.

The Australian Space Agency sets a goal of tripling the space sector’s contribution to GDP from $3.9 billion in 2018 to $12 billion by 2030, creating an extra 20,000 jobs in that time.

The UK Space Agency aims to capture a full 10 per cent of the global space economy by 2030, estimated to be worth more than $US100 million.

Reusable rockets, such as those pioneered by SpaceX, have dropped the cost of launching objects in space from $US20,000 a kilogram of cargo a decade ago to closer to $US2000 today.

At the same time, advances in computing have shrunk satellites from cumbersome contraptions weighing well over 1000 kilograms to tiny one-kilogram cubes, opening up new opportunities for start-ups.

From local companies such as Myriota, which uses nano satellites to provide secure data for remote locations, to Neumann Space, which makes electric propulsion systems for satellites, new services continue to emerge.

“You can’t ignore scientific goals,” said Moore. “But ASA and any young space agency have much stronger statements about industry growth than the older ones.”

Australia’s great expectations for the latest launch can be seen in NASA and SpaceX’s well-wishers.

“We’ll be watching this as a team for sure… Whatever the outcome, this is a momentous occasion for commercial space globally,” tweeted Gilmour Space, which recently inked a deal with the Department of Defence to create rocket launchers.

“Exciting times! We will be watching too!” tweeted the Melbourne Space Program, a technology training group.

Australia’s space community is not alone in its more commercial approach. Singapore is another country wanting to do business way up high.

The SpaceX mission “validates the American approach of grooming a credible private sector that can offer critical space infrastructure,” said Singapore Space and Technology Association executive committee member David Ho. “This shift is one which all space-faring countries must go through at some point in their roads to maturation.”

Should it go smoothly, this week’s mission will help NASA advance to bigger projects where local space businesses could play a part.

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The federal government has invested $150 million in Australian businesses working on projects connected to Artemis program, which aims to see astronauts back on the moon in 2024.

“It is exciting as this reinforces that space is no longer just in the domain of governments – industry can play a big role,” said Australian Space Agency Deputy Head Anthony Murfett.

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