5 mins read 01 Feb 2021

It’s now the best time to be a space-inspired STEM student

With Australia’s rapidly growing space industry, now is a fantastic time to get young people and students inspired in space activities and events. Jonathan Nalder discusses how STEM-based workshops can inspire young people to chase their passion towards a career in space. 

Credit: STEM Punks.

Let’s take our minds back to the 1960s, or even ’70s or ’80s. If a young Australian had asked ‘can I reasonably expect to have a space industry career?’ during these times, what would have been the answer? 

Apart from the pioneering work conducted at Woomera (in South Australia) in the early days of rocketry in partnership with the UK and USA, or Parkes in NSW in conjunction with NASA missions, the answer beyond a talented few often meant something like what is hinted in this image of Astronaut Andy Thomas. If you take a look, the USA flag patched on his shoulder seem at odds with his Australian heritage, but at the time one did have to leave Australia and become a citizen of another country with a space program to have a career such as Astronaut.

Dr. Andy Thomas during his career with NASA. Credit: AP/ B/ Coomer.

In a series of space-focused STEM workshops with students around Australia over the last three years, this image has been shown, along with a challenge to the students to try and name how many Australian’s have been in space. 

Admittedly a definitive answer to this challenge is often still debated by experts - but there is one correct answer that all must agree on; that being an answer of zero. Having facilitated these STEM workshops, I can report that as students view the image of Andy, they do usually realise why it’s fair to say that no Australians have been in space - and it’s because of the prominent flags seen in the image, or rather the flag that is not on display. In order to chase the dream of working in the space sector, and in particular, as an astronaut like Dr. Andy Thomas - came at the cost of renouncing Australian citizenship. 

But what about today and the 2020s? What is the answer one can give to the question today?

New Zealanders’ of course would point to Rocket Lab, now a very successful small-payload rocket launch company launching from the East coast of the North Island. But in tandem with the arrival of the Australian Space Agency, an amazing number of local space industry companies is coming of age and providing exactly the home-grown opportunities that most students of previous eras lacked.

One prominent example who have contributed to the workshops mentioned above has been Gilmour Space Technologies (see video above with engineer Nick Zettl recorded for students) 

Gilmour Space Technologies have signed an agreement with NASA to work on rover testing at the Kennedy Space Center, tested the then world’s largest hybrid rocket design with the Singapore Government, and established their headquarters at Coomera, between Queensland’s Gold Coast and Capital city Brisbane. 

They have even been described by Professor Dave Newman, Former Deputy Administrator NASA and MIT Apollo Professor of Astronautics as “a great innovative aerospace start-up with an exciting mission and vision, fueled by excellent engineers and technology”. 

Their aim is launching up to 305kg to low Earth orbit by 2022 - and a look at their career page is always an insight into just how many opportunities now exist at companies like theirs for young Australians. This page will often feature traditional space roles such as propulsion engineers, but also roles that are much wider in scope. These can range from IT experts to keep their software and hardware mission-ready, supply chain managers to ensure all necessary parts are in place, or Marketing to keep young people across Australia engaged and inspired with the progress Gilmour is making to launch rockets from Australian soil. 

Add in the range of companies joining the Adelaide space industry hub that is forming around the Australian Space Agency headquarters, other well established rocket companies like Black Sky Aerospace, satellite companies such as Fleet Aerospace and so many more, and the future is incredibly bright for young Australians who dream of the stars. 

And those STEM workshops? It has been the thrill of this writer's career to see the looks on student’s faces as they realise that zero is now largely an irrelevant number to this story.


Jonathan Nalder

Through over 20 years in Education, Jonathan (MEd, BA/ BEd) has seen how life-long learning, digital tools (STEAM, AR/VR, mobile) & ‘spacethinking’ transform lives. Now, as founder of the First Kids on Mars, Space Futures Coach for STEM Punks, an Advance Queensland Digital Champion, SpaceNation activity designer, HundrEd Advisor (Finland) & CoSpaces AR/VR Ambassador, he actively helps leaders & learners shift thinking to embrace the coming fully digital, and ‘off-Earth’ era as their most human selves via tools developed for STEM Punks and the Future Ready Framework (FutureWe.org/framework). 

Recently Jonathan’s work was recognised as part of STEM Punks receiving the global Big Innovation Award 2021. He also presented at the Space Habitat Event in late 2020 with HI-SEAS Commander Dr Michaela Musilova, spoke at the world’s largest Education conference ISTE online about a Dark Skies project, and was recognised by CleverBooks as a Top 50 innovator with Augmented Reality.