50 years ago tomorrow, a Russian thing called Sputnik went “Beep, beep, beep” and the world was thrust into the Space Age — and it flew the Red Flag.
Australia’s Space Age is a tale of lost opportunities. At the end of WWII, we had one of the most well-educated workforces on the planet. Most of us spoke English — essential for scientific literature. Our universities were leaders in physics and mathematics.
But our main contribution has been providing big, open spaces to imperial masters on both sides of the Atlantic, where dangerous things could be crashed or detonated, or as a strategic listening post on the ar-e-end of the planet.
Here, then, a timeline…
1947, 1 Apr: 127,000 square kilometres of desert becomes the Woomera rocket range after the UK finds it bothersome to test long-range missiles on Hampstead Heath. Woomera remains the largest land-based testing range in the world.
1952, 3 Oct: The first bits of Australia reach space as a British atomic bomb is detonated on the Montebello Islands.
1958, 7 Sep: Maiden flight from Woomera of Black Knight, UK’s largest rocket to date. With 22 successes from 22 launches, it pioneered research into the controlled re-entry needed to toss atomic bombs at those awful Communists.
1959, 1 Jul: Illegal alien Mr Squiggle of 93 Crater Crescent, The Moon, begins his 40-year program to subvert Australia’s youth.
1960, 25 Feb: Australia agrees to US establishing space tracking stations at Orroral Creek, Honeysuckle Creek and Tidbinbilla.
Apr: UK cancels Blue Streak, a missile intended as an independent Imperial nuclear deterrent. Instead, Britain buys the US Polaris. A pity: Australia had already spent £9M fitting out Woomera and Talgarno as Blue Streak’s testing range.
1964, 5 Jun: European Launcher Development Organisation launches its first Europa launch vehicle from Woomera. ELDO eventually becomes the European Space Agency (ESA), and moves its launch site to that renown high-tech nation, French Guiana.
1966, 9 Dec: Pine Gap treaty establishes a highly-secret ground station near Alice Springs for US signals intelligence satellites. Pine Gap was crucial in 1989 when episodes of the David Letterman show were relayed to Steve Vizard, allowing him to give Australian audiences the impression that he was funny.
1967, 25 Jun: In the first live satellite TV link-up, England beams The Beatles to the world. Australia retaliates with footage of a Melbourne tram.
29 Nov: WRESAT, the first Australian-designed satellite, is launched from Woomera on a scrounged US Redstone rocket. Boffins at the Weapons Research Establishment (now DSTO Salisbury) built WRESAT in under a year. It completes 643 orbits before burning up off Ireland.
1969, Jul: The Parkes radio telescope, opened in 1961, helps NASA send Apollo 11 moon landing images to the world. No-one realises “One small step for [mumble]” was secretly filmed in a studio by Stanley Kubrick.
1970, 23 Jan: The Australis satellite (aka OSCAR-5), designed and built by amateur radio geeks, is launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.
1971, 28 Oct: Prospero X-3, the only British satellite launched by a British rocket, lifts off from Woomera. Its radio transmissions can still be heard.
1972, Jan: The Australian Bureau for Mineral Resources tells the US Senate how satellites can be used for mineral exploration. Australia’s pioneering use of US Landsat was vital to the diamond boom of 1978 and the resources boom that pays for pork barrels today.
1979, 11 Jul: Australia’s large flat empty bits comes in handy once more as NASA crashes the Skylab space station into WA. The Shire of Esperance fines the US $400 for littering. The fine is still unpaid.
1984, 5 Oct: Oceanographer Paul D Scully-Power becomes the Space Shuttle’s first Australian-born passenger.
1985, Aug: AUSSAT A1, Australia’s first communications satellite (bought from the Hughes Corporation), is launched. By the early 1990s the operating company clocked up $400M debt and was eventually sold to Optus.
1989, Jun: The Cape York Space Agency announces that launches from its Temple Bay facility will commence in 1992.
1996, 19 May: Engineer Andy Thomas becomes the second Australian-born space passenger. He completes 4 missions before becoming the answer to a popular pub trivia question.
1997, Sep: International Resources Corp announces it’ll break ground on its spaceport near Weipa in October.
2001, 25 Jun: Science Minister Nick Minchin announces a $52M government contribution to a spaceport on Christmas Island to target the Asian satellite launch market. The first launch is expected in 2003.
2002, 14 Dec: The FedSat micro-satellite, Australia’s 3rd and most successful satellite, is launched from Japan’s Tanegashima Space Centre. It monitors “space weather” for 3 years before the Cooperative Research Centre for Satellite Systems is closed and FedSat transferred to Dept of Defence.
2006, 11 Jan: ANU and ESA announce the development of a prototype ion engine that could dramatically improve performance.
2007, 15 Feb: The Age reports that a new US defence satellite station will be built near Geraldton.
15 Jun: An experimental DSTO/US Air Force scramjet reaches a speed of mach 10 at Woomera, part of the $70M HiFIRE program. Not quite space, but bl-ody fast.
2 Oct: Australia Post issues six commemorative stamps with a space theme. Lick one: it’s the only taste of space you’re likely to get.