“Have you heard of the Melbourne Space Program before?”

This is the first question I always ask when someone’s eyeing our logo or our booth at an event. And not just because it’s a good way to strike up a conversation; I also ask this already knowing what the answer will likely be, and why.

The majority of the public doesn’t know much about us (yet!). Which makes sense.

We’re a relatively new not-for-profit organisation affiliated with the University of Melbourne’s School of Engineering, and comprised entirely of student and alumni volunteers. Since becoming a NFP last year, we’ve been working hard to ensure that we set ourselves up for both sustainability and success.

As an organisation, our focus is on education and giving students an opportunity to gain hands-on experience while they undertake their university studies. We’re doing this by building a cube satellite – and then launching it into space.

For those who don’t know, a cube satellite (or “CubeSat”, as it’s more commonly known) is a type of nano-satellite about the size of a large coffee mug and weighing just over 1kg per unit. Our engineering department has been hard at work designing and building a 1U CubeSat, which is set to be launched from California at the end of 2018/early 2019.

But launching a satellite into space is no easy feat, and this especially rings true here in Australia. Which brings me to why I ask exhibit onlookers and passersby a question I already know the answer to.

The unfamiliarity of our organisation and what we do often speaks to a wider public unfamiliarity of Australia’s relationship with space.

Those who haven’t heard of us are usually not aware of the space activity that already exists in Australia – although with very limited capability to grow due to outdated space-related policies. In fact, most people might not realise that Australia is the only OECD nation without its own space agency. (Iceland, the second-to-last OECD nation to claim this title, passed a proposal just last year to join the European Space Agency.)

It seems strange to be so far behind other nations in space capability when there is so much promise for intellectual and economic growth in supporting space science and technology. Indeed, much of our day-to-day lives rely on such technology – you only have to look at the smart phone in your hand to realise how dependent you are on your connection to satellites in space.

But here in Australia, in addition to the complex technical work that must be done to build a satellite, a labyrinthine amount of regulatory-related work must also be done to ensure that an Australian-built satellite can actually be launched into space – and from another country, since Australia has no launch capabilities on its own soil.

Which is why the Melbourne Space Program has a regulatory department just as hardworking and dedicated as the engineering department in getting our CubeSat into space. The regulatory department helps to ensure that our designs meet legal obligations related to licensing, launch certificates, and everything in between.

(And during a recent trip to Sydney to present at CUBESAT2017, an ACSER-UNSW CubeSat conference, we were happy to discover that our regulatory department was already successfully on track.)

We are also engaging more with the policy making process, having submitted policy recommendations and taken part in a Space Activities Act forum at Parliament House in Canberra.

This CubeSat will be the first of a series of satellites we aim to build, allowing each new generation of volunteers a chance to gain incredible experience, both in terms of hands-on work and professional soft skills, during their time with the Melbourne Space Program.

Our engineering projects are at the core of our organisation, but our regulatory, operations and finance departments also provide opportunities for students from a multitude of backgrounds to come together and help contribute to something meaningful.

We aim to educate, engage and inspire; and in the near future, we hope to bring more of our passion for education to the public and local schools through workshops, speaker sessions and events that are sure to be out of this world.