Earth from the ISS
A photo of Earth taken from the International Space Station.
NASA

Space

There has never been a better time to start a small space agency

With every passing year, more and more countries are launching their own space agencies to participate in a growing space economy.

Nov 26, 2019
Earth from the ISS
A photo of Earth taken from the International Space Station.
NASA

Santa Maria is the southernmost island of the Azores archipelago, about 850 miles west of Portugal. Its serene weather, white sandy beaches, and seclusion have made it a peaceful destination for tourists. That’s about to change.

Over the next few decades, Portugal plans to convert this tiny piece of land surrounded by ocean into one of the world’s busiest spaceports. The country wants rocket launches of satellites and spacecraft to occur with a frequency rivaling that of planes taking off from a small airport. It wants to attract international customers who will get involved in Earth observation and remote sensing, telecommunications, space tourism, and even asteroid mining.

And Portugal is not alone in venturing into the space economy in this way. No fewer than 13 countries have established brand-new space agencies in just the past decade, the majority of them in the last five years. Aiming to fill lucrative niches that NASA and the other space behemoths have overlooked, these agencies from unlikely places are making strong plays at partnering with a commercial sector that’s hungry to stake claims in the expanding space economy. The age of the small space agency is here.

In the past, the primary motivation for a nation to have its own space agency was always a desire to project power and prestige. The US spent $288 billion over 13 years with the sole purpose of landing humans on the moon before the Soviet Union did. After winning the race and cementing its status as the premier space institution of the world, NASA abruptly abandoned plans for any future lunar missions and started focusing its space program on other goals.

Prestige is still a nice thing to have, of course. But the emergence of all these new national space programs is driven by pragmatism—in other words, money. The space market is already worth an estimated $325 billion, and it could reach over $1.5 trillion in 20 years, according to the US Chamber of Commerce. Audacious telecom infrastructure (like Starlink), space tourism, space mining, Earth observation data, and a host of other services are all potentially extremely lucrative. That $1 trillion mark might be a reach, but no country in the world wants to be left behind.

“Space is no longer really seen as just countries wanting to show off their technological prowess and sovereignty,” says Chiara Manfletti, the president of Portugal’s new space agency, Portugal Space, which launched in April and is overseeing the establishment of the new Azores spaceport. “It’s recognized as something that brings added value to society, and a competitive advantage for business.”

Other agency heads agree. New activities are emerging, spurred primarily by cheaper, more efficient spacecraft, rocketry, and software designs. All of this means developing countries can now own a share of the growing space economy without a crippling bill.

How did we get here?

A big part of the reason space agencies are opening in some unexpected places, such as Luxembourg, Paraguay, and the Philippines, is the advances made by the private space sector. Breakthroughs in computer hardware and spacecraft design have allowed satellites to get even smaller while their capabilities expand. Dozens of satellites can now be launched at once for the same price it used to cost to send just one. Launch costs used to be $8,100 per pound. Now they’re less than $1,000 per pound. As a result, rocket launches are becoming relatively commonplace.

New launch innovations are also slashing costs. Companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin have made waves with demonstrations of reusable rockets, and Virgin Galactic is hoping to turn air launches into a cheap, viable alternative for delivering small payloads into orbit and beyond. Other companies are taking advantage of shrinking payloads to develop smaller launch vehicles themselves. Portugal’s new spaceport, in fact, is focused initially on enabling “microlauncher” systems on its launch pads.

The digitalization of data has also further cut the costs of certain space activities and made it easier for less wealthy countries to reap the benefits of technologies like Earth observation and remote sensing. Developing countries like South Africa and Brazil are using these data to track the effects of climate change and the effects of human activity on the environment, and to help implement countermeasures.

“The fact that we have smaller platforms today means that we can also lead on smaller platforms,” says Manfletti.

New alliances

The help goes both ways. For example, wannabe space nations are legislating to make it easier to attract private space firms: in the Netherlands, new laws are supposed to make it much easier to launch ride-share missions from Dutch launch sites, says Frans von der Dunk, a space law expert at the University of Nebraska.

Meanwhile, commercial firms can help get these agencies off the ground by convincing the public and legislators that they’re a realistic option, says Bill Barry, NASA’s chief historian. That can overcome historical reluctance to invest in them. Australia has had a long history of academic research in space science, for example, yet it was only last year the country finally founded its own national agency. This was thanks, in part, to the rise of many new space startups in the country. Now Australia is considering resurrecting plans for a spaceport. “A lot of it had to do with having the right advocates in the right place at the right time,” says Barry.

Niche moves

Very few smaller countries will be able to match the American or Chinese space programs, it’s true. So the goal for smaller space nations is to find a few things they can do extremely well in the age of commercialized space.

In von der Dunk’s view, Luxembourg and the UAE are two of the best examples of countries that have figured out how to fill open niches in the new space economy. Both countries have made extremely aggressive moves to position themselves as beacons for the telecom industry and attract businesses from all over the world.

One of the largest satellite communication companies in the world, SES, is partly located in Luxembourg, and the country finally founded a space agency in September 2018 to promote commercial activities and ink partnerships with other companies. The UAE, meanwhile, is the dominant space power of the Middle East. Rather than developing its own launch capabilities, it has elected to use commercial partners to send up its payloads from spaceports abroad, and focus instead on satellite development. The agency launched KhalifaSat, the first satellite built entirely by the UAE (without international assistance), late last year, and launched its first astronaut into space this past September. It plans to launch a robotic scientific mission to Mars next year. And it’s already invested half a billion dollars in Virgin Galactic. “They want to become the technological hub of the Middle East, and space is a strong part of that,” says von der Dunk.

Meanwhile, in South Africa, the space agency is focused on cubesats. “We’ve got probably about a dozen companies now working with cubesats,” says Valanathan Munsami, CEO of the South African National Space Agency. “And that’s only in the last decade they’ve sprung up.” Much of that is thanks to the country’s robust optical engineering sector, which has been churning out new technologies that can be easily installed on newer satellites, big and small, designed for Earth observation.

Portugal Space is also eager to see its spaceport play a big role in sending cubesats into the sky at a rapid rate, but it’s far from the only one. All over Europe, more countries are contemplating building their own spaceports to accommodate small-payload flights. Indonesia just announced new plans for a spaceport (its presence along the equator would make it an extremely useful location for many kinds of launches).

Not every idea will work out, however, and fledgling space agencies need to be flexible. Few recent events encapsulate this better than the collapse of the asteroid-mining bubble, which Luxembourg had bullishly helped promote for much of this decade. “A space program can’t pin its success on only one or two ideas,” says von der Dunk. “This industry is changing so rapidly. It’s amazing to see so many new players, private and governmental alike—but things are so new, that we barely understand where many of the pitfalls lie.”