A New Role For Space in the 21st Century

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By Stuart Martin, CEO, Satellite Applications Catapult

I’m often surprised when I read or hear reports of new countries in the developing world seeking to develop or exploit space technology. But it’s not the fact that they should want to do this that surprises me. It’s the inevitable accompanying narrative, questioning whether we should continue to support this country financially, if they choose to spend money on space. Space is, after all, the ultimate symbol of vanity by any nation, isn’t it? The implication is that any country spending in space, must either be too rich to need, or too profligate to deserve, our hard-earned development aid.

It astonishes me that this view of what space technology is all about can still persist. The fact is that space provides immediate and lasting benefits to developing nations, which more and more are coming to realise. It can quickly enable a national communications capability, improving immediately the ability to deliver essential services like health and education. It can help map national infrastructure for identifying gaps, and defining priorities for improvement programmes. It can help monitor progress of construction, and in so doing help fight corruption. In fact, for any country poor in infrastructure looking to develop quickly, space provides an array of tools for underpinning development which no other technology comes close too.

We can quickly draw parallels to the way eastern Europe developed in the 1990’s, following the break-up of the Soviet Union. Whilst the western world was struggling to develop the market for mobile communication systems amongst a population that was broadly satisfied with it’s fixed line systems, eastern Europe had no such hang up because there were no reliable fixed lines, and took to the new technology with gusto. The result being that new infrastructure developed at that time, everything from parking, to payment systems, to voting, was all built around the mobile communications infrastructure. And whilst we later came to appreciate how useful this was in the west, and started on the journey ourselves, it is still eastern Europe that leads the world in many of these areas.

Extending that parallel we can expect that in 20 years time, some of the biggest users, and consequently biggest exploiters, of satellite technology will be in what we now consider as the developing world. They will have built new economies, new ways of living with satellite-based infrastructure at its heart that we can barely imagine. But it is right now that we have the opportunity to engage at the start of this transformation, and support, and learn from the vision that can only be inspired when you are not encumbered by the legacy of technology and prejudices of the 20th century.

So no, space is not the preserve of the rich and the profligate, and nor should it be. It is an essential new tool of the 21st century. Maybe it isn’t surprising that this peculiarly British view of space still persists. After all, it has taken many years to really take hold, as we have watched from the side (with a mixture awe, mystification and perhaps a bit of jealousy) as other nations embarked on their own grand space programmes. But while this was all happening, the UK was developing practical, cost-effective satellite-based technologies that focus on commercial viability. Now in a world where the big government programme approach is becoming increasingly unjustifiable, more and more countries are looking at what has been achieved here in the UK, and the opportunities that are now opening up.

Changing perceptions will take time, but it is starting. It was pleasing to hear recently on Radio 4’s Today programme, an excellent explanation by Justine Greening, Secretary of State at DfID, on why Nigeria is placing such emphasis on their space programme, and indeed how UK businesses are helping them. This, together with recent government investments in Novasar, the European Space Agency and the revolutionary SABRE air-breathing engine technology, not to mention the satellite applications catapult, shows that the British government clearly recognises the economic opportunity that space is opening up, and the role of the developing world as essential agents for change.

This really is one of those rare circumstances where everybody can win, if we don’t get distracted. The inertia of the developed world, and misconceptions arising from 20th century values may well be the greatest impediment to realising a space-empowered future for all in the 21st. Let’s not let it slow us down.