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Lift off from Equatorial Launch Australia.

Equatorial Launch Australia’s (ELA) mission is to be the pre-eminent multi-user commercial Space Launch company. We learn more from CEO Michael Jones.



Deep Space


Equatorial Launch Australia’s (ELA) mission is to be the pre-eminent multi-user commercial Space Launch company, providing world-class launch services supporting testing, launch and recovery of space vehicles and payloads flown to and from all space orbits. We spoke with ELA’s Executive Chairman and Group CEO, Michael Jones.

You can connect with Michael on LinkedIn and learn more about ELA on their website.

You can also find out more about the Global Spaceport Alliance on their website.

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Welcome to T-Minus Deep Space from N2K Networks.

I'm Alice Carruth, producer of the T-Minus Space Daily Podcast.

Deep Space includes extended interviews and bonus content for a deeper looking to some of the topics we cover on our daily programme.

This week we're talking about Spaceports.

The Global Spaceport Alliance's annual summit is being held in Florida on January 29th and we wanted to highlight one of the launch facilities to watch in the coming year.

Equatorial Launch Australia, or ELA, held its first commercial space launches in 2022 and believes that the facility which sits just below the equator will offer medium lift rocket companies a viable option for flights.

I spoke with ELA's Executive Chairman and Group CEO, Michael Jones, to learn more.

Hi, I'm Michael Jones.

I'm the Executive Chairman and Group Chief Executive of Equatorial Launch Australia.

I'm an experimental test pilot by Qualification who has been involved probably in three parallel careers, aviation and aerospace, investment banking and professional sport, which is a really interesting mix but probably just aligns with what my interest base is.

I'm really excited and proud to be part of ELA and I'm now the longest and the oldest employee in the company and have been here since 2021.

I'm really excited, particularly with the recent developments we're doing.

I think most startups and scale-ups are on this very much of a logarithmic growth curve and it's that scale-up part that we're in now which is far more interesting in a lot of ways than the pure startup.

I'm a bit of a startup junkie so I like that stuff.

I'm glad to hear that because you've got quite a big startup to get going in Australia.

Can you tell us a little bit about ELA, what it is you guys are doing and your space centre that you've got set up over there?

Yeah, so ELA, we aspire to being the leading multi-user commercial spaceport in the world.

All of our customers are from a global basis so probably one-third in Europe, one-third US and one-third out of Asia.

Our customers are aimed at the up to 3,000 kilo payload size rockets.

The reality of life and there's lots of people who are out there making false statements that we want to be this and we want to be that.

We're a company who don't make announcements until we've done something and right from the start it became very clear to us that if you want to be an international spaceport you need to have some reality of the logistic challenges of moving rockets.

So that's why we've limited ourselves to the sort of the bottom end of what I would call the medium lift capability because the pure logistics of getting the rockets and payloads to us if you want to do bigger is just really hard and the sense and commercial viability that just gets a lot harder.

We have a very different model to what most people would expect so rather than asking our resident launches which is the term we use to come and invest a lot of money up front and build their facility.

We are building seven space launch complexes.

They are all exactly the same and I'll put a caveat on that that we can customize for some of the specific, you know, geometry and configuration of rockets.

But basically they're all the same and they have the same tenants of a large horizontal integration facility which is state of the art with clean rooms and everything that's required for final rocket assembly and preparation for launch.

We also have two launch pads in each slick one which will be fully developed and we've developed and designed a very.

I won't say it's particularly unique it's more akin to the way the Falcon 9 rocket is erected on the pad in that it has a swiveling base but we have a very unique interface system which allows us to accommodate any rocket.

And we've also designed our own rocket trolley to get the rocket to the site to make the interface easier, you know, because everybody's slightly different.

So that's our concept we're based right at the tip of the Northern Australia to get as close to the equator as we can.

And so it's a real trade off between some of the remote and logistic challenges that that creates.

But the operational and technical benefits that we get out of it are quite significant.

We're right on the coast.

We're in an elevated site.

We're on rock.

So it's very stable.

We have the support of the government.

We can launch, you know, through about 230, 240 different degrees of inclination if we need to.

People often freak out at the concept of us, you know, launching over land.

But Australia is a very large landmass with very few people.

And we have, you know, one of the examples we use and we've done the full detailed risk hazard analysis of a rocket that may or may not be modeled or something that looks like RFA one from Germany.

And we launched that due south and it has 3,700 kilometres of overland flight.

And it doesn't fly over a person or a building.

And, you know, for a polar launch, that is like unheard of anywhere.

So but our real core point of difference, I suppose, is being 12 degrees south of the equator and availing ourselves of the effect of, you know, the rotation of the earth and what that Delta V does to payload and performance benefit for our customers.

So I did look on your website earlier and you've already got three launches, I believe, under your belt.

Do you want to talk us through what it is you've had launched from ELA so far?

Yes, so NASA did three sounding rocket suborbital launches.

Each of them went to about 350 kilometres into space and then return.

So they are quite a long downrange, you know, recovery program.

There was three different payloads and are quite heavy payloads.

Each of them was around 350 kilos.

So quite significant missions for sounding suborbital rockets.

And for us was a real baptism of fire, so to speak.

You know, dealing with NASA, who is just, you know, obviously the gold standard in the industry and have been doing this for a very long time.

So we had the attitude right from the start of learn everything we can.

And what we learnt was we were actually in pretty good shape and there were a few things that we did NASA went.

And that's really interesting, the approach that you take and we're going to take that on board, which we never thought would happen.

It forced us, you know, and it was really tough, you know, very short time coming out of COVID to get ready for launches.

So we did Australia's first ever commercial space launch on the 26th of June in 22.

And then in the following 15 days, we did two other launches.

And so to back up very quickly to do all of those, they're all individual different missions with different licensing.

So, you know, it forced us to become really good at the regulatory process and how you run a spaceport and how to interface with a customer.

So it was really good.

And then we've had a real hiatus, which at first was annoying, but is now a bit of a God sender.

And it's allowed us to go into our next phase of development of developing these seven new space launch complexes and get all our other policies and procedures and development of the site, you know, done in the meantime.

And that's been caused by a whole sequence of either rocket anomalies or industry delays.

It was a cause by us.

It's just people who had booked in from, you know, September 22, etc.

Just kept sliding to the right.

But now what we're getting is what we expected.

And it's a good thing to have is a bit of ground rush that all these customers are now going, Hey, we're ready to launch.

Let's get going.

And so we're doing a lot of parallel tracks.

And so we've announced one contract and we've got eight other contracts out and negotiated at the moment.

And so we're hoping that in a very near future, we'll be booked out for quite a while and just the work will just mount on us, which is which is a good thing, Dave.

It's a great problem to have.

It is.

It's a very good problem.

And it's certainly something you'll see around the world right now.

I would really like to touch on, though, as you mentioned regulation, which is a big deal when it comes to spaceports.

How has Australia come about with its new commercial space industry to come with regulation?

Now, have you learned from the US system?

Are you doing a bit of a similar system to what the UK is doing?

How has it really worked for you guys over there?

I don't think it'll come any surprise to you that Australians are a little weird.

We always look at things like space regulation and go, we can do that better.

So I think we've come up with a Space Launch and Recoveries Act, which is more comprehensive, tougher and harder than just about everybody else.

So that is a self-inflicted punishment.

Likewise, as we do most other things here, we try to do it better.

So when negotiating for the bilateral treaty with the United States Department in relation to the Technology Safeguards Agreement, we want it better, we want more.

And so it probably took two or three years longer than it should have.

But that's now due to be tabled on the 6th of February in our Parliament here in Australia for ratification.

And so that really opens the doors for us to be able to do technology engagement with US launches and start that process other than like the one we did with NASA, which we did under a TAA, which is a slightly small variation on that theme.

But our regulatory environment here, like I said, is very strict, very comprehensive.

But it has a line to be, and I'm loath to use this word because it's very similar to what we've done in our civil aviation area of harmonisation.

So the FAA regulations and both 420 for spaceports and 450 for launch vehicles, they almost read across to each other.

So the fears of US and other international launches are, I'm already certified by Space UK or whatever.

You'll still have to submit for a licence here.

So if you're an Australian going to the UK, you'd have to do the same.

But it's basically just slightly repackaging and realigning that.

And we've come up with a really good template so that people basically fill in the blanks and there's a cross-reference check so that they meet all the requirements.

So we've hopefully smoothed that process.

It's still not quick.

They're still very thorough as it is everywhere else.

I mean, I remember talking to one of our US prospective launch customers and they go, "Oh, we're going out to the Cape.

We're expecting our licence."

Well, 18 months later, they still didn't have their licence.

So even though they thought that the US had this absolutely scum and the FAA would approve them instantly, everybody's taking a while because nobody wants to be the person who goes, "Why did they get a licence if there's a mishap?"

In any way.

So I think it's a prudent step and I think it'll approve over time.

And I think both the FAA and the Space Agency here in Australia will get to a point where they will recognise each other's regulatory approvals.

And I think over time, we will get to the point where, like elsewhere in the aviation world, you have designated engineering representatives who can sign off on things.

And I think we'll get to that point eventually.

The new space world needs to mature a little bit because that would be an unrealistic expectation at this point in time.

We'll be right back.


And that really brings me to the Global Space Port Alliance.

You guys are part of that alliance.

Have you started talking with your counterparts in the US and UK to figure out how you can get those kind of licences set so that they are standardised and you can start thinking about point to point travel, for example, in the future?


So ELA has been a member of the Global Space Port Alliance for a very long time, like almost our inception.

And this company was founded in 2015.

Really didn't start to hit its straps until 2017 to 2019, but it's been part of the GSA for all that time.

And we interact with them and we do so also with other players around the globe.

Like I've been to Kennedy, Canaveral twice for an inside sort of discussion on everything.

Likewise, we've sent three different teams to Vandenberg.

We've been to a number of other launch sites, etc.

And we go to school on what everybody else does and we'd be stupid not to come right from the start as a sort of a newcomer to the industry.

I was quite amazed at the lack of standardisation and commonality.

So, you know, one of the sort of catchphrases we used from early on is we need to be the Swiss Army Knife of space so that we can accommodate everybody's different power requirements, different fuel requirements, different connectors, different ways.

They load the rocket, different ways that they do countdown procedures.

So, in a lot of ways, we have tried to be very adaptable.

And but what we've learned also out of our NASA experience is in some cases, you need to go, no, no, no, this is how it's going to happen because this is the new way to do it.

And or this is the way that it's actually legislated now.

And so that's a bit of a change in the new space environment.

And the global space portal lines, I think, is going from strength to strength.

I think, you know, if I could be critical at a little bit, it is extremely US centric.

And whilst there are a lot of international members, if you look at the speaking schedule for the upcoming Global Space Port Alliance symposium at Spacecom, you know, there's no real international content.

And so they sort of complained to them and said, hey, you know, there's a lot of us who are actually doing space stuff, you know, outside the US.

How about this?

And, you know, in the US, as you know, there are just about every town who's got an airport that, you know, they want to get some extra revenue or profile for their calling it a space port.

Yes, horizontal launch and other methods of launch are real and viable.

And I'm not discounting that at all.

But it's proper vertical launch for orbit missions that really sort of count to a large degree.

And, you know, the main players in the United States being Kodiak Vandenberg and Cape Canaveral and obviously Elon's, you know, Texas Venture, you know, they're the real guys at the moment.

And I expect there will be more of those as the regulations, you know, mature into this millennium.

But, you know, the international world is there as well.

It really is.

I mean, if you just look at the moment this year already, we've had launches from India, China, I don't know, New Zealand, your neighbours are also very active with Rocket Lab operating out of there.

That does bring me to the fact that Australia has had a bit of a bad press in the last 12 months when it comes to investing in space.

There was some plans to cut back a lot of the funding that came from the government level.

How much does that hit you guys over at ELA?

It hasn't hit us per se because we never expected or designed our business plan to be relied upon government support.

But just as an Australian who works in the sector, it's incredibly disappointing.

And there is a whole bunch of, you know, inaccurate rhetoric that come out of government.

So, no, no, we haven't abandoned it.

We're still supporting it, which is abjectly not true.

They basically have abandoned it.

And that's that's sad.

They established a space agency under the previous regime and it's doing well.

It's working incredibly hard to support, you know, the the commercial side of the space industry in an almost vacuum.

And likewise, you know, people go, well, there is this massive agreement between Australia, you know, US and UK under Orcus, which is delivering, you know, things that I never thought that I would see in my lifetime, like nuclear submarines, et cetera.

And a lot of people in the space industry went, oh, that's great.

That's going to really help us.

I'm more of a skeptic of that and going, well, that's going to really help us.

Because now we'll just buy off the shelf in the United States or go to the United States, whether that's buying data, technology, et cetera.

So for companies like ELA, we need to be the best at what we do.

We need to be globally relevant and we need to have a commercial solution which stands on its own two feet.

You know, I regularly hear in Australia, it saddens me.

Companies sort of say, oh, you know, we need government support.

We won't survive without this.

And I look at it and go, if you can't survive without government support, you wouldn't survive anyway.

It would be really nice if you were supported by, you know, your sovereign entity.

And it's a phrase that I detest, which is, you know, creating sovereign capability.

You know, I just believe that we are creating a global technical capability and it needs to be attractive to people.

And that's why they would take the very bizarre step of, you know, coming and launching from Australia to the other side of the world.

Why would you do that?

Well, it has to be compelling and it has to be compelling from the technical solutions and the innovations that we provide, you know, that quite apart from my personality, that we're, you know, we're a good, good organization to work with.

And people like working with us.

And we have to have a commercial solution which is really compelling.

And, you know, it's been surprising to us on a few occasions that we've had a few clients who sit there and go, well, if I compare launching here with Vanderberg and I go, that is, you know, primary school level economics and working that out.

Like if you work out a discounted cash flow and a return on your investment there, that is, it doesn't make sense.

And then they go, oh, OK, so we've had to actually do a bit of education on that of, you know, the methodology where we're setting ourselves up as a infrastructure player.

So, you know, we signed contracts for numbers of launches over a number of years.

We charge a launch fee.

We basically build the facilities and don't charge them for it other than on a current user fee.

And we do that.

We've set ourselves up financially, you know, as an infrastructure entity.

And, you know, so we've had to always stand in the shoes of our clients and go, you know, what are the reasons why I wouldn't launch from Australia and then go away and come and develop a comprehensive and compelling solution as to why you would.

And then also let's reinforce the positive things we have so that people actually, you know, and we've had, I think, probably three companies who, you know, poised, you know, pen in hand to sign who originally said, no, we're not interested in launching from Australia.

But, you know, we water tortured them, annoyed them enough to, you know, get them to look at the detail and the data and the reasons why it may make sense for their business plan.

And it's been a good thing for us because it forces us to be more understanding of our clients.

And also we spend an enormous amount of time and effort trying to understand the industry and where it's going and the nuances, you know, where can we fit and how can we match make that.

And so it's a really interesting sector to be in.

It's really challenging.

It's capital intensive.

And there are just so many stakeholder inputs.

You know, I've never experienced anything like it.

But it's certainly not dull.

What do you think Australia is doing or could be doing more of to really support workforce development pipeline?

Because you're going to need to have the next generation of engineers, entrepreneurs that come up and through the ranks of these universities to then start working their careers at your baseball.

Yes, Australia is a country and, you know, as a workforce, you know, I don't think we're unique.

But we tend to punch well above our weight and early adapters of technology.

And, you know, by any metric, you know, we're a fairly advanced country.

People don't see that and everybody has, you know, a degree of parochialism in them.

And so it's really up to Australia to sort of get foot forward and project into that.

But there is no shortage of smart people.

There's no shortage of people who want to work hard and want to work in the industry.

What we're lacking and it'll take a while to develop the base is the experience and the, you know, industry now that is really necessary to take you to the next level.

And there's just a, you know, you get caught by various things.

So our legislative and regulatory environment for launch on a safety basis, for instance, you know, requires somebody who has, you know, a vast experience in launching.

You go, well, given that we're the only guys who have launched out of Australia, how do you do that?

So that has forced us, you know, necessarily to sort of cast the net wider.

And so we're constantly interviewing guys out of France who've worked at Kuru and out of the US who've worked out of the US space bases.

And I think that's something that will be around for a while.

You know, and one of the companies we work really closely with is Phantom out of Tucson, Arizona.

And, you know, we were there one day and we probably had their top 15 guys at the table.

And, you know, there's no offense to him, but the safety and quality guy was probably the least experienced guy at the table.

And he'd done over 20 launches.

So, you know, we dream of that level of experience and it'll take a while.

But we are very cognizant of the fact that we don't have that.

But there are positives and negatives that enables us to hire really young, energetic, smart engineers who come in here.

And there really is no limit to what they can do or where they end up in their careers.

And we found that that's been a really good thing.

We need to occasionally hire in either consultants out of US or Europe who have got this launch experience.

And, you know, I try to set the example.

I'm a sponge every time I meet with, you know, the 22 different launch companies we deal with on a daily basis.

I try to learn something new every day and then pull all that together and it makes me appear to be very knowledgeable about the industry.

And, you know, I'm trying to use that same sort of concept for my employees here, but it'll take us a while to get there.

There's no lack of smarts or capability here.

It's just we're lacking the experience and the only time can produce that.

Michael, is there anything you want our audience to know about ELA and launching in Australia that you think that we haven't covered?

You know, I think we are starting to get a bit more recognition.

People are starting to understand what we do.

You know, I think the biggest thing that if I could encourage the world and it is somewhat self-interested, but it is also I believe what is necessary, you know, from a global perspective is that this is a global industry.

And it doesn't matter what ethnicity you are, what your origins are, etc.

We try to take everybody on face value and, you know, it is an industry which is only still at the cusp and is growing.

You know, I think we're going to see more and more of our daily life impacted by space in a positive way.

And we hope that we do start to get people to understand that, you know, little old ELA in Australia, the other side of the world, you know, we are hopefully punching above our weight and we're a company where we actually stand behind what we what we say.

And it's not rhetoric we're actually trying to deliver.

That's it for Team I in a steep space for January the 20th, 2024.

We'd love to know what you think of this podcast.

You can email us at space@intuk.com or submit the survey in the show notes.

Your feedback ensures we deliver the information that keeps you a step ahead in the rapidly changing space industry.

This episode was mixed by Elliot Peltzman and Trey Hester with original music and sound design by Elliot Peltzman.

Our executive producer is Jen Iben.

Our VP is Brandon Kauff.

Our host Maria Varmazes will be back next week.

I'm Alice Carruth.

Thanks for listening.


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