Trump, Australia’s Morrison Talk Moon/Mars Cooperation

Trump, Australia’s Morrison Talk Moon/Mars Cooperation

Australia is joining the Artemis program to return astronauts to the Moon by 2024.  It is one of the topics being discussed by President Trump and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison during Morrison’s ongoing visit to the United States.  Although it is but one of many topics on the table, it came up at three joint press conferences yesterday as well as last night’s State Dinner. Today, NASA and the Australian Space Agency signed a “statement of intent” on “potential” contributions Australia may make.  While that sounds less than definitive, the Prime Minister’s personal attendance at the signing ceremony sends a strong signal that Australia is serious about participating.

Australia is home to a number of U. S. tracking stations used to communicate with spacecraft in Earth orbit and beyond.

Of those that support NASA, perhaps best known is Tidbinbilla near Canberra and officially called the Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex (CDSCC).  It is one of the three hubs of the Deep Space Network (DSN) that enables communications with space objects traveling throughout the solar system and, in the case of the Voyager spacecraft, even further.  The other two are in Goldstone, California and outside Madrid, Spain.  The locations 120 degrees apart around the globe permit constant communications with spacecraft in deep space as the Earth rotates.

Other NASA antennas have been located near Tidbinbilla over the years, including a dish at Honeysuckle Creek that was used to relay the iconic footage of Neil Armstrong stepping onto the lunar surface in 1969.  Honeysuckle Creek no longer is in operation, but the dish, which was moved to Tidbinbilla and used until 2009, was declared a Historical Aerospace Site by the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics and its concrete foundation at Honeysuckle Creek also has a historical marker.

Although the specifics have not been revealed, Australia and the United States are about to begin cooperating on efforts to return humans to the Moon and someday go on to Mars.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison (L) and U.S. President Donald Trump (R), September 20, 2019. White House photo.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison is in the United States for a week-long state visit that will take him to Chicago, New York and Wapakoneta, Ohio as well as Washington, D.C.  He became prime minister 13 months ago.

During a joint press conference in the Oval Office yesterday morning, Trump was asked about what “the new space program to the Moon” means for both countries.

And, you know … we’re going to Mars.  We’re stopping at the moon.  The moon is actually a launching pad.  That’s why we’re stopping at the moon.  I said, “Hey, we’ve done the moon.  That’s not so exciting.”  They said, “No, sir.  It’s a launching pad for Mars.”  So we’ll be doing the Moon.  But we’ll really be doing Mars.  And we’ll be — we’re making tremendous progress.  — President Donald Trump

Morrison answered: “critical metals, space — these are the things we’re going to be talking about because Australia has a wonderful partnership with the United States, not just militarily and not just strategically, but also economically.”

At a lunchtime press conference about two hours later, Morrison added:  “… and a big part of what we’ve been discussing here is some new opportunities, whether it’s in … critical minerals, the frontier technologies, space.  You know, this is where jobs are going to be in the future…”

In another press conference after lunch, Vice President Pence told Morrison:

“And, let me also say, as Chairman of the National Space Council … how refreshing it was to hear you reflect on our shared aspirations for renewed leadership in space.  We are, indeed — as you said, Mr. Prime Minister, we are going back to the moon and then to Mars.  And America and Australia will go together, once again. — Vice President Mike Pence

Space came up yet again at last night’s State Dinner at the White House.  Among the guests was Andy Thomas, an Australian who became a U.S. citizen so he could join the NASA astronaut corps. He was part of three space shuttle crews (STS-77, STS-102, and STS-114) and spent 141 days on Russia’s Mir space station as part of the 1990s shuttle-Mir program, arriving on STS-89 and returning on STS-91.

Morrison acknowledged Thomas and the new space cooperation with the United States during his toast at the dinner.

It’s true, Mr. President, we have been in a lot of battles. But we have also stood together to realize the dividend of peace, prosperity that comes from our embrace of enterprise and free markets and the rule of law, our great immigration societies, education, liberal democracy and the commitment to the fulfillment of human potential. This has been importantly included in our work together to expand the frontiers of science, technologies and exploration.

To reach into space, as we first did together 50 years ago, when you launched and we kept Apollo 11 in contact through the Honeysuckle project with Earth and we beamed those most famous of images of all time to an enthralled and inspired humanity. Events that no doubt inspired a young Andy Thomas, from Adelaide, who’s with us here tonight, to launch into space on the Endeavour almost 30 years later. And now we have to do this again under the vision of your presidency, Mr. President. — Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison

Australia has been the location of some notable space events, including the only orbital launch of Britain’s Black Arrow rocket in 1971 (placing Prospero into orbit) and the landing of Japan’s Hayabusa asteroid sample return capsule in 2010, both in Woomera. But after launching its own satellite, WRESAT, from Woomera in 1967 on a U.S. Redstone rocket, the Australian government itself has played only a modest role in space activities over the decades.

It established an Australian Space Agency (ASA) only last year within the Department of Industry, Innovation and Science, opening its doors on July 1, 2018.  The Australian government also released a civil space strategy that is strongly focused on the economic aspects of space activities.  A previous entity, the Australian Space Office, was created in 1987, but abolished in 1996.

ASA is headed by Megan Clark, a former head of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO).  The agency is responsible for providing advice to the government on civil space policy and to “help businesses win a greater share of the global space market.”

Today, Clark and NASA Deputy Administrator Jim Morhard signed a “joint statement of intent” with Morrison and U.S. Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross looking on.

U.S. Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross, top left, and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, top right, witness the signing of a letter of intent between NASA and the Australian Space Agency by NASA Deputy Administrator Jim Morhard, left, and Dr. Megan Clark, Head of the Australian Space Agency, right, Saturday, Sept. 21, 2019 at NASA Headquarters in Washington. Photo Credit: (NASA/Joel Kowsky)

Although NASA’s press release about the signing ceremony contains a lot of tentative language like “intention to join” and “foresees potential” contributions, it also asserts that Morrison “pledged to more than triple the Australian Space Agency budget to support Artemis and Moon to Mars.”

The ASA’s budget is quite small, though.  The Sydney Morning Herald reported in July that last year the Australian government allocated $41.2 million for ASA over four years — about $10 million per year — but added another $19.5 million this year through a Space Infrastructure Fund. ASA’s website says it has $73.2 million in funding, but does not specify what period of time that covers.

No specific contributions are identified, only that the two countries have areas of mutual interest including robotics, automation, and remote asset management “similar to that currently used by Australia in mining operations.”

Thomas was also at NASA today for the signing ceremony, along with Morrison, NASA management astronaut Alvin Drew who is currently assigned to NASA HQ, and former NASA astronaut Pam Melroy who is now Director, Space Technology and Policy, for Nova Systems in Adelaide, Australia.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, second from left, poses for a picture with NASA astronaut Alvin Drew, left, and former NASA astronauts Andy Thomas, second from right, and Pam Melroy, right, following the signing of a letter of intent between NASA and the Australian Space Agency, Saturday, Sept. 21, 2019 at NASA Headquarters in Washington. Photo Credit: (NASA/Joel Kowsky)

Thomas is not the only Australian-American to fly in space.  Paul Scully-Power, an oceanographer, flew on STS 41-G as a payload specialist when he was an employee of the U.S. Naval Undersea Warfare Center.  Another Australian-American, Philip Chapman, was selected by NASA as a scientist-astronaut in 1967, but left in 1972 without making a spaceflight.

Note: this article has been updated.



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