Australia's space aspirations have often been in lockstep with the development of weapon technology, and indigenous Australians have often paid the price for such endeavours, finds freelance writer and Adelaide-based researcher Ann Deslandes.
Holding the congress in Adelaide was a great boon for South Australia, where many political and business leaders have been working hard to establish and grow tech-based industry, including supporting investment in “New Space” tech start-ups (e.g. Fleet, Inovor Technologies, Myriota) and defence technology manufacture.
Woomera’s twin industries
It’s not the first time that planet-scale technologies have played a role in developing the state of South Australia. The Woomera rocket range in the state’s far north was established in 1956 for the purpose of weapons testing, in partnership with Britain, creating jobs for the entire town of Woomera (indeed, creating the township itself) and for many in outback towns close by. It was the site of the aforementioned first satellite launch and, over many years, collaborations with NASA and other space agencies to observe space and launch rockets.
From the beginning, the Woomera Prohibited Area, as it is now known, has been run by the Australian military and used for the intertwined purposes of developing machines for space exploration and technologies for defence. It’s perhaps no accident that Woomera was also the site of an immigration detention centre between 1999-2003, playing a visceral role in Australia’s secretive, punitive border protection policies that are still an international human rights scandal over 20 years later.
Ugly nuclear fallout
Indeed, before the “living hell” of the Woomera detention centre, the human and environmental cost of experimentation on this country was colossal. In order to secure the land for weapons testing in the 1950s, Kokatha, Pitjantjatjara, Yankunytjatjara and other indigenous people were forcibly removed from their land so the site could operate. During the testing of nuclear bombs, many experienced serious illness, were blinded, or died. Many British and Australian service people also bore serious heath effects. The contamination of the land has been widely documented and cost over $100 million to clean up, with ongoing effects on people and land still unknown.
“After the explosion, the powder went north — white powder. It killed a lot of kangaroos, spinifex; water was on fire — that’s what we saw”, survivor Nyarri Morgan told 7.30 last year. “The water died; it became hot. But we had to drink it anyway.” Morgan’s is one of hundreds of testimonies now on the record but heard too late to save the life of the people and land affected by the experiment. Today, people such as Pastor Russell Bryant, a Pitjantjatjara man from the Yalata community, regularly speak out to remind us of this unacceptable cost.
Will it happen again?
To be sure, there are important differences between machines made for space exploration and machines made for war. But their industries always, apparently, occur together. The congress last week was sponsored by Lockheed Martin, the United States’ largest military contractor and preferred supplier of weapons for the endless wars on Iraq and Afghanistan. After 9/11, they even branched out into private security services such as interrogating prisoners in Guantanamo Bay. Other major global weapons contractors Boeing, Codan, Saab, and Thales have been engaged in the current wave of South Australia’s economic re-development, aligned with TechStars, the global start-up incubator.
Now, as South Australia leads the nation in celebrating a revival of space technology — bringing with it the hope of new money, new jobs, and breadth for new ideas in a country that is apparently rather bereft of inspiration — what could be the human and environmental costs, and which of these can we live with? What are our options, when space technology is created in lockstep with the technologies of national defense? Whilst Adelaide is currently bursting with democratic experiments and opportunities for citizens to raise their voices, it’s surely imperative that there is space for questions like this too.