En Vogue: Space flight as the ultimate status symbol
By Camille Capelle, Africa & Middle East Editor
Photo credit: JAXA/MOHAMMED BIN RASHID SPACE CENTER
On 19th July 2020, in the midst of an ongoing global health crisis, the first Arab interplanetary mission was successfully launched into space. The United Arab Emirates’ Hope probe is expected to reach Martian orbit by February of 2021. The mission has pulled the UAE onto the front pages of newspapers as well as to the forefront of Mars missions, a notoriously high-risk operation. These new efforts will hopefully help the entire region become more involved in the industry as more and more countries become part of this exclusive club.
The global space industry is currently estimated to be worth $400 billion, with only one quarter of revenue coming from government agencies while the rest is commercial. Considering the massive amount of funds being poured into the space industry internationally, the importance of these missions, and the messages they send, needs to be examined.
The space industry emerged as a product of the power struggle between the USA and Soviet Union during the Cold War. As much an object of military strategy and defense as it was propaganda and a tactic for intimidation, the importance of these advances and missions went much further than scientific data collection.
Nothing epitomizes this international competition in technological capabilities more than the space race. Though the term has been famously used to describe the competitive rivalry in space flight during the Cold War, talk of a new space race is emerging as countries spend billions to become part of the club.
In a world that values technological advance more than ever, these missions are a source of national pride, a way to showcase the achievements and power of their countries. The role of national and regional space organizations is to push the boundaries of what is possible, through the creation and testing of new technologies. Only then can these systems be passed on to the commercial sector, where they become essential to our everyday lives – through GPS, television, weather monitoring, and telephone reception– and a huge source of profit. While people typically associate extra-atmospheric projects as the work of the famous government space agencies, 3/4 of the industry is now commercial.
The most recent example was the successful launch of SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft, which returned independent launch capabilities to the US. Previously, American human space flight had been dependent on the Russian Soyuz, after the termination of Space Shuttle missions. The success of a launch was not only a source of national pride, it is a subtle reminder of the global competition still ongoing both on and outside of our planet.
The high-risk high-reward nature of space flight makes it a natural stage for shows of progress and national strength. But the UAE claims that the mission is about much more than that. The small oil-rich state desperately needs to diversify its economy if it wishes to survive the environmental challenges ahead. The main aim of the Hope mission and other projects is to jump-start its knowledge economy. A key reason why the young country was able to develop and launch an interplanetary mission in 6 years, when the average time is 11 years, is because it is seen as an economic necessity, not “just a technology demonstrator. The project manager Oman Sharaf has said that the mission is economy rather than space driven.
The United Arab Emirates are not the only Arab country looking to get in. Algeria created its own space agency in 2002, having already had launch experience since the 1960s with help from the French. In 2014, the National Space Science Agency was established in Bahrain, focusing on the acquisition and analysis of satellite data and images. Saudi Arabia created its own independent space agency at the end of 2018. Although much later to the club, the agency is already receiving massive financial support with a budget of $1 billion in its first year alone.
Promoting the international prominence of these countries is a key motivation for the creation and sustenance of these agencies. Financially, the government space industry should be easily accessible to these oil-rich gulf countries. The challenge lies in finding enough qualified local staff in countries which lack strong STEM traditions.
A new space race?
Following the end of the Cold War, the financial resources available for space missions dropped. However, interest in the industry was reawakened when the economic potential was understood. SpaceX is far from the only non-government space company trying to get in the game. Unlike before, an emerging “space race” is emerging between billionaire personalities rather than countries as a whole. Elon Musk, Richard Branson, and Jeff Bezos are among those trying to pioneer new space projects, creating a huge new market for private investment. The prospect of the expected trillion dollar space economy, has caught the attention of the world as optimism spreads for its potential.
“Not since the 1960s have we witnessed such an appetite for space missions.”
While providing great publicity for the country and the region, the Hope mission symbolizes a new step in the right direction for the United Arab Emirates and setting an example for other Arab countries to follow. Its ambitions outside our atmosphere are more representative of a change in economic mindset and a recognition of the enormous potential of the global space industry, both government-led and commercial. These efforts are nevertheless part of a global trend. While the spike in space missions and the enormous cashflow into the industry certainly have its economic benefits, they remain a way for countries to assert themselves on the global stage, contributing to and competing for scientific achievements. The danger and potential of these missions serves to remind the world that these countries are becoming, or still are, forces to be reckoned with.
The views expressed in this article are of the authorsand may not reflect the opinions of The St Andrews Economist.