Northern Territory startup Equatorial Launch Australia (ELA) has secured a deal with NASA, and while it’s one small step for a startup, it could mean a giant leap for the Aussie space sector as a whole.
ELA is building what chief executive Carley Scott calls “an airport for rockets” — Australia’s first commercial spaceport for launching and recovering missiles.
The announcement earlier this week reveals NASA plans to contract ELA’s Arnhem Space Centre to launch rockets on the site in 2020, marking the first time it will use a private launch site outside of the US.
Founded in 2015, the startup has spent four years searching for the right site for the spaceport, and “laying some strong foundations and partnerships so that we would be in a position to work with the very best in the industry”, Scott says.
In this sector, there’s a huge amount of work to be done before you can start onboarding clients, she adds, “but understandably so”.
ELA is likely to be the first group to offer commercial launches, she adds.
“That means the activation of rules and regulations at a federal level that haven’t been used for commercial launch before.”
The team has also spent a lot of time working with the Yolngu people, the traditional owners of the north-eastern Arnhem Land, where the space centre is located, considering what it means for them to have a venture like this on their land.
The community and the business have been in discussions for “a number of years”, Scott says, and have created a formal agreement on how they can best work together.
ELA also went through an independent statutory process with the Northern Land Council, to make sure the process of accessing the land was appropriate.
“They will be such an integral part of how the site continues to develop and operate into the future,” Scott says.
“They’re fantastic partners, with such an ancient culture and ancient stories of the stars,” she adds.
“To see those old stories mixing with new will be really exciting.”
Lift-off for the Aussie space industry
According to Scott, landing a customer as high-profile as NASA takes time. Representatives from the agency visited the Northern Territory site in 2016, and released two subsequent reports exploring the opportunities the site provided.
Ultimately, it was “a huge range of things” that got them on board, she says.
“NASA looks for the best site location, the best teams, and the best settings for their initiatives,” she explains.
Part of it, however, was simply “site-specific”, with the placement of the site being close to the equator.
“It’s a very efficient location, so geography is quite helpful in this case,” Scott says.
“When you’re close to the equator you often get a greater efficiency for the rocket launch. It throws your rocket off more quickly, so you need less fuel.”
However, she also says part of the draw for NASA wasn’t necessarily about ELA itself, but about the wider Aussie space ecosystem. Both the federal and state governments have been supportive in the process, considering the implications for international trade.
“When you’re talking about the space sector, there are some really detailed agreements that need to be put in place to allow that trade to take place.”
At the same time, Scott notes there is a lot of innovation and investment in the Australian industry at the moment.
Through the new Australian Space Agency, the government plans to double the number of jobs in the space industry, she says.
“You’re looking at an international market which, by 2040, will be worth $1 trillion,” she says.
“The fact that Australia all round has a strong history and strong presence currently in space is really good.”
This deal with NASA may be a significant win for ELA, but it’s also a strong step forward for Aussie space startups as a whole.
“This is literally launching Australia’s space industry into the future,” Scott says.
“This is a launch site that gives Australian industry direct access to space, and with that, the opportunity for international partners to come in and work directly with us.”
Shoot for the stars
Scott and the ELA team have learnt a lot through the process of securing the NASA deal, and to see it all pay off is “just tremendously exciting”, she says.
“To see that hard work come to a point where the very best in industry is saying ‘yes’ … is just a huge boost for the team,” she says.
“When you’re toiling so hard and not seeing steps forward for all that work … to have this sort of announcement is just a great reward for the whole team.”
So, for other startups trying to catch the biggest of fish in the international ocean, Scott has three major pieces of advice.
Firstly, “get your foundations as strong as possible”, she says.
Secondly, she advises startups to “really understand how to work with that other party — what they’re after and how they like their information to come”.
Finally, she urges other Aussie startups to be bold.
“Australia has sensational businesses that are very strong, but you do have to take bold steps and really put your case forward strongly,” she says.
“It’s uncomfortable,” she adds, “but you have to keep getting out there.”
It may not come naturally to many Australian founders to shout about their own accomplishments. You’ll likely attract the naysayers, “and that’s quite difficult for people personally”, Scott says.
“You need to be prepared to that, listen to those voices and respond as needed, but keep focused on the positive work you’re doing.”