When Australia announced its intention to establish its own Space Command in March 2021, RAAF Air Marshal Mel Hupfeld told ABC News that the country was “three or four years behind” in its Defence Force space capabilities.
As the Space Command’s inaugural Commander, aeronautical engineer Air Vice-Marshal Catherine Roberts has the task of overseeing that catch-up.
Roberts, who began in the role this past January, tells create that her goal is to establish foundations that would allow the Space Command to pursue its long-term vision.
“Which is to assure our access to space across the whole government and in concert with our allies and international partners and industry,” she explains. “It’s about the physical capabilities and it’s about the people that make that work. They’re the two fundamental things that I want to make sure we have right, and so we’re on the right trajectory.”
Roberts is enthusiastic about the challenge; she describes the job of getting the Defence Force more involved in space as a “great opportunity” but also acknowledges the difficulties and demands of the task before her.
This includes expanding Australia’s space capability in terms of domain awareness, communications, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance.
“We’re going to have to do it really quick, otherwise we’ll just continue to be a consumer of space and we won’t be able to protect our assets in space,” she says.
“To do it quickly means that [Space Command] gets to field low-technical readiness level technology really quickly and look at all sorts of different commercial arrangements as well.”
Roberts sees Space Command as having a vision that will unfurl on a scale of decades, though she is aware her personal role is to focus on the next few years.
In some ways, however, she has been preparing for the job her entire life.
Roberts was three years old when NASA’s Apollo 11 mission made its lunar touchdown.
“I still remember the excitement from when I was really young and seeing Neil Armstrong land on the moon,” she says.
That didn’t mean she dreamed of becoming an astronaut herself. When she was growing up, Australia’s participation in the space sector was minimal, with most of the action happening in the United States. Even the few Australian astronauts, such as Andy Thomas who, like Roberts, grew up in South Australia, seemed very remote.
“They were in America, they weren’t in Australia, and there was no clear path to actually become something like that. I didn’t understand back then the fact that anyone can go to space. You could be an engineer, you could be a psychologist, you can be a geologist,” she says.
“I wasn’t thinking that I would necessarily be involved in space, but I knew that I’d be doing things that were related.”
But Roberts did know she wanted a career where she could make a significant contribution to the world. Talented at maths and science, when she finished high school, she sought a challenge.
“That was my motivation,” she says. “It was a choice between medicine or engineering — and engineering was slightly harder to get into at that point in time.”
And of the engineering options available, aeronautical engineering seemed the toughest, so that’s where she set her sights.
As she anticipated, the study was challenging — “helicopter aerodynamics,” she recalls, “oh my goodness; I never want to do that ever again” — but it also involved subjects that have once again become relevant to her career, such as rocket design.
To study aeronautical engineering at RMIT, Roberts joined the Royal Australian Air Force, which was at the time quite a different organisation to the one that exists today.
“When I joined the Air Force, women couldn’t be pilots,” she recalls. “They’d only just opened up engineering to women.”
By 2019, however, she had risen to Head of Air Force Capability, conceptualising and shaping the future of the entire organisation. Among the highlights of her career along the way, she says, was bringing the Air Force’s F/A-18s to Indonesia for the first time.
“That was absolutely amazing, taking our fighters overseas to somewhere they’d never been before,” she says.
One of Roberts’s goals for Space Command is to help support Australia’s rapidly expanding space industry, focusing on companies that can produce a business model that gives them a variety of customers in space.
“We want to see a lot of innovation from industry,” she says. “You can’t just have defence as your only customer. You need to have a broader base than that.”
Launch facilities are an example of this, Roberts says.
“I think launch is really important because it brings the ecosystem around you. If you can launch things, then all of a sudden there’s more of a market for satellites that you’re building,” she says.
“That’s something that we’re talking about in the space strategic update … we’ve got to be very clear on what industries we’re going to go after. Because we could go after everything, but we need to go after something that’s sustainable.”
When it comes to space, Roberts says, Australia has a geographical advantage — and that is an important security consideration.
“We’re in the Southern Hemisphere. When we are looking up, we can see things that other countries can’t, and that makes us quite valuable. You can tell what’s going on in space in a different sector from Australia — and that really helps allies as well,” she says. “We meet on a regular basis trying to do things like setting norms of behaviour in space, and then we work very closely with them on this architecture, because you can share constellations [of knowledge].”
The security challenges in space are many and varied, and it can sometimes be difficult to determine what conflict in space looks like.
One example from this past February involves a cyberattack on a ViaSat satellite’s Ukrainian ground infrastructure, which coincided with Russia’s invasion of the country.
“The US said that Russia hacked it, and then that destroyed the modems for Germany’s wind farm generators, because they were using the comms with the commercial satellite. It also took out some other military targets,” Roberts says.
“Space-enabled cyber-attacks: is that conflict? Well, it happened in a conflict, so you need to be able to prevent that from occurring.”
There are also what Roberts calls “grey-zone operations”, such as a recent occasion when China’s SJ-21 satellite was used to drag another Chinese satellite out of geosynchronous orbit.
“If they can do that, then they could take one of ours out. If they took our NBN satellite out of orbit and we didn’t have NBN anymore, would that be a conflict? We certainly would be unhappy,” she says. “It’s pretty hard to define where that line is there. What we have to do is be able to prevent it.”
In such a situation, Australia might decide to move its satellite out of the way. But there are other times when countries might move their satellites too close to Australia’s for comfort.
“[These are] what we call proximity operations, and they are trying to look at potentially what we are saying, what we are receiving, interfering with that data source or intelligence,” Roberts explains. “Is that a conflict? Well, no, that’s just spying, you could say, but it’s certainly something you have to protect against if you want to make sure that we secure our information.”
Another concerning possibility relates to countries intentionally inducing the Kessler effect, whereby debris strewn in space creates collisions in low-Earth orbit that, in turn, create more collisions, affecting a region’s usability.
“We talk about it in terms of responsible behaviours in space in a military sense,” Roberts says.
“The US just recently issued a statement saying that creating debris in space is irresponsible. But there are no rules for space: there’s no [International Civil Aviation Organization], there’s no law of the sea; we are on new turf.”
All engineers needed
Professor Brian Falzon is Director of RMIT’s Space Industry Hub. He believes Australia’s Space Command was inevitable, and he welcomes its introduction.
“It’s quite an exciting period to be in for me, because I look at what it must have felt like back at the turn of the [20th] century when the Air Force was coming into being,” he says. “That must have seemed just as out-there and just as fantastic as we think of the Space Command now. But, of course, the Space Command here is not so much about Star Wars and having spaceships doing battle. It really is about the realisation that the space domain is actually a very different domain to what it was even a few years ago.”
He sees that space domain as an increasingly congested one.
“There are actors who are not playing by the rules, as we have seen recently,” he says. “How do you protect your assets? How do you protect your access to space?
“So it’s an inevitability that we would have a Space Command to protect our critical infrastructure, because space is very much becoming part of our critical infrastructure. So much of what we do depends on it.”
He hopes the organisation will highlight the importance of space to all forms of engineering and encourage people to study the skills the sector needs for growth.
“It’s tough enough getting young people into STEM, and then to further get some of these STEM students to realise that there is a career pathway for space,” he says.
“With the establishment of the [Australian] Space Agency, there seems to be a government commitment to really grow the sector and also to develop … sovereign capability.
“So that in itself creates demand for people, it creates demand for products, it creates services, etc, because even from a geopolitical perspective, we are very much in a different world to the one we were in a few years ago. We are also likely to see a strengthening partnership between the civil and defence space sectors.”
Falzon says it is important to future-proof a workforce, and this is one of the core activities of the space industry hub.
“We are talking about engineering here, but when you think about it, pretty much every single profession you can think of has a space counterpart,” he says.
“It’s not just engineering, whether it’s medicine, whether it’s law, whether it’s policy.”
Roberts agrees, saying that even within engineering, space affects everyone from every discipline.
“Aerospace and the space elements of that — the space design — is really important,” she says. “But then, if I was talking about electrical engineering, [there are] all of the things to do with the buses [the structural body and system] on the satellites.”
And it doesn’t stop there. Civil engineers will be important if we are to build structures on the moon. Chemical engineering is another example: rockets draw on careful chemistry for their operation, and future developments will involve making them more environmentally friendly.
“It’s a whole new environment, and it requires every discipline of engineering to be successful,” Roberts says.
Ready for launch
For now, Roberts is focusing on getting everything under her command up and running. That involves a lot of challenges.
“I’m what we call an environmental commander,” she says. “It’s not a role I think that an engineer — an Air Force engineer certainly — has ever been in, because it’s considered an operational role. So I have to raise the forces that will allow us to fight if we had to.”
She also must map out what training and career paths will look like for people in Space Command.
“I need space people and I’ll train them, and I don’t care whether they’re a pilot or they’re a technician, or they’re a cyberwarfare officer. I just want people with these different categories,” she says. “I’ve got to redesign the architecture that we were planning, the constellation in space and the constellation on the ground, so that we can actually do what we need to do for Australia and with our allies too, because space is extremely contested.”
Her task is to ensure physical capability and engage the people to make the organisation work.
“They’re the two fundamental things that I want to make sure we have right, so we’re on the right trajectory,” Roberts says. “The job is massive. We have thousands of things that we want to do, but we’ve got to work out what we are going to do first.”
Leading the next generation
Australia’s Space Commander Catherine Roberts says she was inspired to go into a STEM career by her mother, who was a scientist, then worked as a teacher.
“I had this really good role model of someone who’d done something different and worked in the field,” Roberts says. “She told me stories about having to go to a boys’ school to do maths and science because they didn’t do it at the girls’ school she was at … I think that gave me the motivation to do something very different.”
She has, in turn, been an inspiration for her daughters — one who is in exercise science, with the other in biosecurity — and her family now contains three generations of women in STEM.
“[There are] all those barriers that we have in terms of women in STEM from a very young age, not being encouraged to do it because it’s not what girls do. Both my girls did STEM, but maybe that’s because they had a role model,” Roberts says.
“I think we’ve got to really sell the message that engineers help people.”