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Oct 11, 2017

The human cost of the space industry in Australia

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.

The Woomera rocket test range, South Australia

Last month, at the International Astronautical Congress in Adelaide: the government announced that Australia was getting a space agency; the Australian space community marked 50 years since Australia became one of very few countries to launch their own satellite into orbit; and thousands thrilled to the announcement by Elon Musk that a civilian mission to Mars is on track for 2020 aboard a new SpaceX mega-rocket.

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.

*Ann Deslandes tweets at @Ann_dLandes.

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2 thoughts on “The human cost of the space industry in Australia

  1. graybul

    “Australia’s space aspirations have often been in lockstep with the development of weapon technology . . . . and, Australians have often paid the price for such endeavours.”

    Given Northern Territory as a possible space launch site; is it too ‘long a bow’ to link decades late, Defence ownership of their PFAS disastrous impact as an example of how once again, civilians are considered no more or less than collateral damage. Pity the parents and generations of children in Katherine now coming to terms with their exposure.


    You can’t really argue against the majority. Our system works for the big groups depending on their worth. If a group of two are worth billions, then a state of 2 million people for eg. are worth far less and are easily sacrificed. Not a problem. It is pure economics and makes good sense. What do we do with the populace that have been sacrificed….provide a counsellor or two. And that is what life is like in Australia. I prefer a war personally and as soon as we can. The Chinese and the North Koreans and the South East Asian countries will overrun us. It will be Nasi Goreng for dinner. Not a bad change if I get to live. If I die it will be with a smile on my face because I fought to save Australia and we lost. I hope we win, but deep down I know we can’t. Our leaders and their Lobby mates are too corrupt, in a legal sense they aren’t but they cannot be trusted to tell the truth at all because the polity is a theatrical performing device and the politician is an actor! Love the system but we here in Australia have been corrupted by the Democrats in America who have been tinkering with it, and they were the good guys!!

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