Guest post by James Cemmell

What is a modern space nation and how do you become one?

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Banner image: 'Clearing debris' by Kordite on flickr.com

29 May 2020 by James Cemmell, Vice President, Government Engagement, Inmarsat, and CSaP Policy Fellow

What is a modern space nation and how do you become one?

The ability to exploit space for political, economic or strategic advantage has become essential for any country or region that has the wherewithal to do so. Whereas in the very early days of space travel and satellite launch, access to technologies was simply unaffordable for all but superpowers; many nations have since developed the ability to launch satellites, architect novel systems, build spacecraft and to control and exploit the rich variety of data derived from space.

There is an array of modern space powers that have emerged in recent decades: India’s space programme sits in the Prime Minister’s Office and the country has become expert at using earth observation data to support agricultural planning. China has a national navigation system, and (along with India) has demonstrated military A SAT (antisatellite) abilities. In a public report, the US Defence Intelligence Agency (DIA) wrote about the various military space capabilities of many nations including reference to the evocatively titled ‘kinetic kill vehicle’.

Closer to home, via the European Space Agency, the European region developed advanced space launch (rocket) technology that allowed for non US brokered access to space, and, in recent years, the UK has sought, through the Satellite Applications Catapult, to deal with difficult issues around the commercial viability of space companies. The European Union’s flagship Galileo navigation programme was center stage during the heated discussions around Brexit – which overshadowed the UK’s perhaps actual need for such a system under national control irrespective of Brexit (and with the extent of the reliance established by the Blackett Review, which referenced the economic impact to the UK of a five day service disruption at £5.2 billion).

Setting out your stall as a modern space nation requires a clear agenda. One commonality from amongst the above examples is that each country has taken a clear eyed focus and has developed a space capability relevant to its needs. Each, as a participant in the international system, has paid attention to how it is developed and implemented – what short and long term measures are required. It’s not enough to have a satellite in space, an astronaut, a robotic probe. With so many credible space nations existent and with the advent of novel technologies, governance and your global position matters.

Any modern space nation needs to attend to policy aspects along three axes:

1: Organisations must be holistic. Space is naturally a whole country or region affair – government institutions are required that can enjoin all space users into whole of government approaches, understand the true dependence on space systems and embody the national strategy. A space agency in isolation doesn’t work. Top of government sponsorship is required and the government must be clear about the level of its ambition for and content of its national space agenda. It is tempting to focus on signature major programmes – an exciting space mission launch - without addressing the organizational aspects that increase the chance of success of these missions and ensure that they are efficient at value creation from a whole government perspective. Space endeavors must be founded on robust institutional foundations.

2: Major space programmes create new systems that underpin the resilience required of modern societies. They serve as focal points for the cast of characters in the modern space power (universities and research specialists, government, industry). Well-chosen major programmes serve the national interest, deliver a much needed service/product and create differentiated abilities – whether it’s an enhanced meteorological system, a purpose built navigation system, or a space robotics venture - in short, they are strategic and must be selected through that lens. With a clear and widely understood space strategy, it should be a facile matter to filter out proposals that fail to leverage existing capabilities, build new ones, serve a very clear purpose and otherwise don’t justify their costs. If it isn’t, the strategy doesn’t exist.

3: Governance matters. The space law regime is international and as such has significant political character. The outside world is part of the strategy. With new entrants in space, regulated spectrum resources and orbital slots are under pressure. A proliferation of novel systems increases the ever present risk of collisions, and with them the potential for space debris to create cascading destructive effects that could make the space commons unusable for a generation or more. In short, every space power has a stake in ensuring that there are rules of the road, that data is freely shared to enable sustainable use, and that their own systems are protected. Political leadership in international governance matters becomes a local necessity the minute a national programme is signed off.

In many ways, space is no different from any other major government endeavor: a clear strategy is required, effective institutions must be in place, and an international strategy must be part of the story. The strategic stakes are, perhaps, higher – but it’s surprisingly often neither as expensive as, nor as complicated as, to take a UK example, building a high speed railway line…

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James Cemmell is a CSaP Policy Fellow focusing on space, innovation and foreign policy questions. He is an alumnus of the Judge Business School EMBA/MBA programme and is Vice President, Government Engagement at Inmarsat, a former intergovernmental satellite organisation, now owned privately and headquartered in London