International Space Station (ISS) flight operations engineer Andrea Boyd no longer has to spell out where Adelaide is to her international space industry colleagues. Many of them attended the International Astronautical Congress in South Australia’s capital in 2017, when it was announced the nation would have its first Australian Space Agency (ASA). “It’s the biggest space conference in the world,” Boyd, 35, says. “Now with the different space agencies and companies, I don’t even have to explain Adelaide – it’s, ‘Yes, we love Adelaide’ because everyone was there.”
The mechatronic engineer, who is the only Australian ISS flight controller on Earth, came back to Australia from Germany to attend the Congress but, like many young locally trained scientists, her favoured work opportunities have always been overseas in more highly developed European or US-based space programs ... until now.
With the announcement in December 2018 of Adelaide as headquarters for the ASA and the subsequent boost to the development of Australia’s space industry, expats like Boyd are beginning to look towards home for future employment.
Science fiction first inspired Boyd to look to the stars from her Adelaide home. “When Star Trek Voyager came out I was about 10 and I loved it ... because everyone was there doing their jobs and, even though it’s fictional, you’d look at and I’d see the chief engineer making everything work. I learned the word ‘engineering’ and I thought, ‘If I do engineering, I can do something with space’.”
She studied mechatronic engineering at the University of Adelaide in between gap years overseas and robotics studies in South Korea, with a wanderlust triggered by her Italian ancestry: “(In) Year 10, I had an exchange year to Italy – Catania, Sicily. The original motivation was to be able to understand what my grandparents were saying at Sunday lunch. You find the world’s really small and, in my exchange year, there were kids from 90-something countries. By the end, all of us spoke Italian and ... everybody could communicate. It was the greatest thing ever.”
After stints teaching, working for engineering company LogiCamms and mining giant BHP at Olympic Dam, Boyd had the required experience to apply for space-related work overseas.
“I loved it at Roxby Downs – really difficult, really hands-on but really good. It teaches you a safety mindset, as well. It was one of the biggest things I took away,” she says. “I might have stayed but I had the required years of experience, and years of being involved with space activities and conferences. By then it was, ‘I have to give it a go’, and applied for a very specific small amount of jobs overseas.
From her console at the European Astronaut Centre in Germany, Boyd communicates with the inhabitants of the ISS, and those travelling to and from the giant microgravity and space environment research laboratory, 400km above the Earth. “I knew I wanted to work at the ISS,” Boyd says. “It started being built in the 1990s when I was in school and I thought it was the most amazing international project – the closest thing to Star Trek I’d ever heard of in real life. It’s unique ... countries working together and integrating, when does that ever happen?”
While the space industry is hotting up in Australia now, Boyd also had a hand in helping reboot the local scene from her European base. In 2015, she joined a team of local experts to work on boosting Australia’s capabilities in space, delivering a speech in Federal Parliament in 2016 to convince politicians a national space agency was the best way forward.
She later also worked with fellow South Australians to bring the ASA headquarters to Adelaide: “We stabilised it at national level then I switched to team South Australia – working to secure the headquarters here. I am so proud of what we’ve achieved and really proud of the team we have running the space agency.”
Once the agency became a reality, her thoughts turned to home, with visions of a rapidly growing “future-proof” industry now becoming a reality. “I think a lot of the expats there started thinking ‘maybe I could actually move home’, which was never a thought in any of our minds beforehand,” Boyd says. “The only reason we left Australia was to work in the space industry.”
It might take a few years but the siren song of her hometown grows stronger all the time.
Combustion Dynamics group leader, German Aerospace
Centre (DLR), Germany. Qualifications: Double degree in Aerospace Engineering and Physics from the University of Adelaide. PhD from the University of Adelaide for work done at DLR.
Work overseas: The DLR is the European centre for testing of chemical propulsion systems in support of the European space program. I work in the research and development department, leading the Combustion Dynamics group. We specialise in studying the details of how the propellants are injected and burn inside rocket engines, and looking for solutions to dangerous fluctuations that can destroy an engine.
Return: I would be attracted by a position which offers cutting-edge technical challenges, preferably in launcher propulsion. Being an Adelaidean, if something like this came up in SA I would be back home in a flash!
Professor of Aerospace Engineering, US. Qualifications: Bachelor of Engineering (mechanical and aerospace) and Bachelor of Science (theoretical physics), University of Adelaide (2012). PhD in plasma physics from the ANU (2016).
Work overseas: I am an assistant professor at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo (Cal Poly). I am a faculty adviser for the Cal Poly CubeSat lab, a student-oriented lab with three satellites currently in orbit around Earth. On a daily basis I am dealing with things either going to space or trying to get us there! I will be starting a new position at the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP) where I will be establishing and running a CubeSat lab as part of the on-campus NASA Miro centre, with support from Lockheed Martin and ULA (United Launch Alliance).
Return: I do hope to return to Australia one day but ... I would only come back if the work I could do was on equal or better footing. The establishment of the new space agency is a big step in the right direction. I can see that the experience I am gaining in the US would be a huge benefit to establishing a solid technical astronautics program in Australia, so I could see myself involved in setting up the technical program if the right support was there from industry and the Government.
Flight Operations Plan analyst, ESA Space Operations Centre, Germany
Qualifications: Diploma in Medical Technology, SA Institute of Technology (now UniSA). IT Administration and Fibre Channel Storage architect.
Work overseas: I took the chance to get international experience building data systems for large companies after getting married to my wife Anke, who lived in Germany. I am with Telespazio-Vega Germany. I’ve been working in space operations at ESA Space Operations Centre as Flight Operations Plan analyst and also as Scrum Coach for a NewSpace project called Enable.
Return: We have already made the decision to return in view of the recent announcements from the Australia Space Agency building its HQ and operations centre in Adelaide. This is a wonderful opportunity for SA and its local economy to be involved in Australia’s footprint in space. I am looking forward to contributing to SA’s success in the space industry.
Project manager/systems engineer, Engineering Directorate, NASA Ames Research Center, US. Qualifications: Bachelor of Engineering in Mechatronics, PhD in Aerospace Engineering.
Work overseas: I am currently the chief engineer for Millennium Engineering and Integration Company, Services. I work as an onsite contractor at NASA Ames Research Center, California. I work on a variety of projects including as project systems engineering for the Air Traffic Management eXploration (ATM-X) project.
Return: My wife and I have discussed moving back to Australia as a possibility. I think as the Australian space industry grows there will be more and more exciting opportunities for Australians to get involved in space technologies and missions.
It’s a mission of Moonshot proportions – create an additional 20,000 jobs and triple the size of the space sector to $12 billion in a mere 10 years. “We know we can achieve those targets,” says Anthony Murfett, deputy head of the Australian Space Agency. “Space impacts on the broader economy. As we increase space activity we’re going to be assisting farmers, miners and others, so there will be spillover effects. Then, if we look at just the space industry itself, it’s been growing at more than 7 per cent a year and the agency will provide the coordination aspect. We will be the catalyst for conversations.”
The Federal Government decided in December last year to base the Australian Space Agency in Adelaide, allocating an initial $41 million to the initiative. It is a key element in a City Deal centred on Lot Fourteen – site of the former Royal Adelaide Hospital on Adelaide’s prestigious North Tce. The decision “builds on the very strong technology and defence presence in the state,” Industry, Innovation and Science Minister Karen Andrews said at the time.
The agency will oversee a Mission Control Centre at Lot Fourteen where commercial or government operators can manage operations. It is working with Canberra’s national science educator Questacon to establish a Space Discovery Centre at Lot Fourteen with permanent and occasional exhibitions and events for the public. The Federal Government is contributing $6 million to each of those initiatives.
“What’s really exciting is the massive transformation we’ve seen. We’ve gone from a space sector largely driven by governments into a nimble industry where companies small, medium and large can engage. That means two things for Australia – firstly, space technologies can be used to help the broader economy. We have companies in Australia using space to help farmers manage their land. They no longer need to drive hundreds of kilometres checking infrastructure. They can sit at home and look at their phone to check out a water tank or see where their stock are.
“The second exciting part is how accessible it’s becoming, how companies can get engaged because of shorter innovation cycles, technology getting smaller and launch becoming cheaper. It’s not just about getting to space – it’s about how we use space to help us.”
The agency is mandated to create a globally respected space industry. It is guided by a recently released Australian Civil Space Strategy which sets out seven priority areas:
The Federal Government is investing more than $300 million in the first area, targeted especially at improving GPS from an accuracy of 10m to 10cm nationwide and to 5cm within mobile reception zones. This is vital for sectors such as agriculture, mining and banking and in future for autonomous vehicles and remote operations. Under the Earth observation priority, 30 years of satellite imagery has been made public and will be constantly updated, facilitating analysis of developments and trends.
Australia’s unique geographical position and climate create extraordinary opportunities in communication, Murfett says. “We’ve already had instrumental roles in projects such as supporting the Apollo mission. The pictures of Neil Armstrong were relayed from Australia because we can see things the Northern Hemisphere can’t see.”
Space situational awareness and debris management will become increasingly important as the number of objects in space soars. Leapfrog research will look at initiatives such as using AI – augmented intelligence – to curate and edit data from satellites, using quantum communication and employing optical rather than radio transmission links.
Australia’s world-leading robotics and remote operation expertise – such as driving mine trucks in the Pilbara from offices in Perth – put the nation ahead in a core business area for space. The final priority of encouraging access to space involves the agency as regulator and administrator of launch and other activities.
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