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Space agency under fire over weekend rocket launch

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SA Senator Rex Patrick has delivered a withering critique of the Adelaide-based Australian Space Agency, accusing it of “putting Australian economic activity and jobs at risk” by bureaucratic inertia.

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It follows the weekend’s ‘second time lucky’ launch of a rocket at Koonibba on SA’s west coast – an event that was not attended by any Australian Space Agency representatives, as it fell under the jurisdiction of the Civil Aviation Safety Authority.

That was because the company behind the operation, Southern Launch, was not authorised by the ASA to send its record beyond 100km – a fact that prompted Patrick to lash the regulator in a column published in InDaily today.

“The Australian Space Agency needs a good shaking up… [it] has induced hesitation amongst potential international customers and put Australian economic activity and jobs at risk,” he said.

“As a Senator, I am bombarded by aviation people who tell me that CASA is just the most difficult Government organisation to deal with in Australia… and yet, somehow, the Australian Space Agency has made CASA look good.”

An Australian Space Agency spokesperson said the regulator was “working closely with Southern Launch on their applications for the launch facility and launch activity at the Koonibba Test Range, including providing advice to support the completion of its applications under the Space (Launches and Returns) Act 2018”.

“The obligation remains with Southern Launch to demonstrate that it meets these requirements,” they said.

“Southern Launch’s test rocket launches on the weekend were expected to peak at 85km above Earth which requires approval by the Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA), under the Civil Aviation Act 1988 and associated framework.

“CASA is responsible for approval of areas for operation of rockets and must take into account the likely effect on the safety of air navigation.

“The Agency will continue to work closely with Southern Launch as its applications are further developed and completed.”

Southern Launch CEO Lloyd Damp told InDaily the company submitted its application in December for a March deadline, which was later delayed because of the outbreak of COVID-19.

“There was discussions between Southern Launch and the agency about what exactly it is they were asking for and it never really progressed,” he said.

He said the company had “always been open with the space agency in trying to get these launches done in a commercially viable timeline, in line with other space-faring nations”.

Damp said the Australian Space Agency had informed Southern Launch there were “gaps” in its submission, “but as the regulator they were unwilling to tell us where or what was missing”.

He said the agency’s “gap analysis” of the application followed six months of requests and written communication from Southern Launch and was handed down in late August – just weeks before the scheduled launch.

“We reiterated to the agency that the rockets were sub-orbital, that no payloads were to go into orbit around the earth,” he said.

“The rocket itself was very simple and didn’t have any guided navigational control [that would be] more aligned with a large Space-X rocket…

“This is all new space [using] very small rockets, and that’s where we’re trying to work with the agency as much as possible to show them the simplicity of these types of rockets and why they’re so good for STEM and other forms of research.”

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