By Matt Garrick
NASA scientists visit NT site which could eventually blast rockets to the Moon – Posted Thu at 12:36am
NASA scientists famous for scouring the red planet on rovers have travelled to the red dirt of remote Northern Territory to an area where rockets are expected to be launched within the next year.
Todd Barber and Tom Nolan, both employed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in California, were this week taken to land surrounding the now-named Gulkula Launch Site, outside of Nhulunbuy, in north-east Arnhem Land.
“When I first saw the land here and I saw the colour, I said, ‘this is Mars’,” Mr Nolan said.
“We have fake Mars at JPL to do things, and this is exactly what it looks like … the colour and the texture. We’re here.”
Mr Nolan said the site’s remoteness was a distinct advantage.
“We need remoteness. We can’t launch out of Los Angeles — it’s not going to work,” he said.
“So having the remote area is the beginning … being out in the middle of nowhere is a great advantage. It’s unpopulated. It’s a great opportunity.”
Launches to fuel galaxy of jobs
The launch zone sits in a bushy, isolated 65-hectare patch of Yolngu-owned land, not far from the site of the annual Garma Festival.
It has been sub-leased to space venture Equatorial Launch Australia (ELA) by the Gumatj clan, which will then be loaned as a sub-orbital rocket launch site to aeronautical organisations including NASA.
“When I heard that NASA made a contract with ELA I just jumped up and down … what an opportunity for NASA, what an opportunity for the whole area here up in Northern Territory,” Mr Nolan said.
“NASA will have more places to launch, but it’s not just about NASA, we need the whole international partners, all of industry to come and use this place for more and more and more launches.”
Mr Barber said he believed the space centre “could really fuel the local economy”.
“From what I’ve seen today it just looks like an excellent opportunity for future STEM [science, technology, engineering and maths] careers,” Mr Barber said.
“If this space port is built here, they’re going to need so many kinds of jobs.”
NASA gives space base a ‘kickstart’
No infrastructure has yet been built on the site, as the companies await development proposals to be processed, but Gumatj chief executive Klaus Helms said he wanted to get started in 2019.
“We hope that within this year I’d like to be able to put the roads in and start a clearing, if all the applications come through,” Mr Helms said.
“As you can see, we’ve got NASA people onsite today and walking around, it’s a good sign for us that it is actually going to happen.”
Mr Helms said NASA’s involvement had helped ground the space centre plan into reality.
“It needed a kickstart, and this is a very good kickstart to get it going,” Mr Helms said.
“If it goes ahead, we’ve got the building of the roads, the building of the infrastructure, we’ve got the delivery of water, the delivery of fuel, we’ve got communications, security; there’s a multitude of jobs.”
Rockets to moon, deep space, part of vision
The visit comes as the founder of ELA, Scott Wallis, told the ABC of his expansive, decades-long vision for the Gulkula Launch Site, which he hoped would eventually facilitate rockets to the Moon.
“It will evolve at its own pace, starting off as a small launch site,” Mr Wallis said.
“It’s more about crawl, walk, run, fly, go to the Moon, go to Mars, go to deep space, do space mining over time.
“The expectations are as much as those around who wish to continue it on, because this will last for at least 40 years.”
ELA has in the past faced scepticism that the project wouldn’t have enough capital to get off the ground, but Mr Wallis had words for the naysayers.
“Just watch us,” he said.
“We’re not just a start-up — we’re now in our fifth year.
“The excitement that NASA brings, it’s the same for investment and others … we’re continuing on in a very strong way, we’re just quiet about it.”
NASA’s Mr Nolan was equally optimistic about the project.
“The Government has the will, the people have the will … of course it can happen. It’s going to happen,” he said.
NASA, government pitch students on a future in space
The NASA scientists were flown to Gove by the Australian Air Force, primarily to visit school students in the region to fire them up about future jobs in the space industry.
The visit to the region — with funding from the NT Government and backed by ELA — was the brainchild of One Giant Leap Australia, an ambitious not-for-profit organisation pushing to see more students take up interests in STEM careers.
Nhulunbuy High School students were among those visited by the NASA scientists.
“I think it’s very exciting that there’s a new space base being built in north-east Arnhem Land, because I think it gives hope that any little town in the world can have its little contribution to space exploration,” said Year 12 student Siena Stubbs.
“There’s a lot of stories from Yolngu of north-east Arnhem Land that include space and the stars, and the fact it’s here gives us a chance to share that knowledge with the world and with Australia.
“It’s an amazing chance for all kids and Yolngu kids to become inspired of what’s out there.”
Student Ben Angstmann said the space centre “gives opportunity for Nhulunbuy in the future to achieve a lot more once the [town’s Rio Tinto bauxite] mine does maybe close down”.
“I want to try and be at that first launch, if I’m lucky,” he said.
No official date has yet been decided for an official first launch at the site, but it could be as early as this year.