Space Technology Legacy & Modern Global Trends—Part II

All the space-age pioneering countries swiftly morphed their space programs from semi-military outfits into full civilian entities by establishing national space agencies. Later on, inter-governmental space alliances like the European Space Agency (ESA) were also established to leverage member country’s technological and economic strengths.

Correspondingly, the UN created a permanent Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS) in 1961 to coordinate the activities of national governments in space. The five Space Treaties resulting from this coordination formed the basis of International space law.

The US and former Soviet Union dominated all capabilities of the modern space industry throughout the 1960s. However, the 1970s saw Asia advance its role is space with Japan, China, and India developing domestic launch capability based on indigenous technology.

Skylab Space Station

The proliferation and sophistication of space technology capabilities continued to flourish in the US, USSR, Japan and Asia. The USSR and US continued to dominate the manned spaceflight segment culminating in several low-earth orbit crewed space stations such as the American Skylab and USSR Salyut program. Space business is highly risky and dangerous. As a result, the growth of both programs was unfortunately punctuated by numerous tragic and spectacular accidents. For instance, the 1980s saw the US suffer a major space shuttle accident and again in 2003.

The gradual collapse of the former USSR in the late 1980s and early 1990s plunged the Soviet space industry into a financial crunch. The dwindling of the previously free-flowing government funding enjoyed by the space industry only mirrored the communist government’s collapse. Prosperity in the Soviet space sector was hence  immensely thwarted during this turbulent transitional epoch. Elsewhere, the rationale and funding for large-scale government space programs had been relatively dwindling compared to previous years. This was evident in the US where, NASA’s budget had peaked in the late 1980s at level much lower than the 1960s during the Apollo program.

The global telecommunications boom in the 1990s led to a surge in demand for satellites tilting the global space industry to be driven mainly by commercial, rather than government interests as had been the case before. However, the new millennium witnessed a number of unprecedented manifestations i.e. the prostration of the telecommunications boom, adjustments in government space priorities and emergence of private commercial space companies.

SpaceX Dragon – First commercial spacecraft to visit a space station.

These pioneering, small private companies are nimble and exploit the rigid bureaucratic inefficiencies of the larger government agencies to offset the lack of comparable huge government capital infusion. Moreover, they venture into areas with a readily available market such as low-cost launch systems, space tourism and imagery .Examples of such companies include GeoEye SpaceX, Virgin Galactic, ZeroG, Sea Launch, Bigelow Aerospace and so on.

Innovation in the modern space-age was initially driven by science exploration and manned spaceflight. Later, the innovation impetus was provided by military applications in space. Presently, innovation in space technology is and will continue to be driven by the information-age. As a result, we can deduce a perfect opportunity for a country like Kenya to venture into the space arena. This information driven space utilization entails a favorable environment for burgeoning entrants like Kenya because this innovation phase is relevant to their national developmental ambitions. This is hence an atypical opportune moment for Kenya to venture into space technology. This celestial foray must however be prudent and aimed to serve national sustainable development.

A variety of approaches in space exploitation are presently evident in the global space arena. Apart from the customary unilateral government approaches, a mixture of bilateral and multilateral inter-governmental collaborations is ubiquitous. The two latter approaches are motivated by the lucid pragmatic need to share costs and benefits of a common undertaking. Inter-governmental collaborations are mostly evident in relatively large and expensive scientific space missions which tend to have global implications. Examples include space stations e.g. the International Space Station (ISS); interplanetary exploration missions e.g. Cassini-Huygen Mission to Saturn and, Earth observation missions e.g. Global Precipitation Measurement (GPM).

Additional emerging trends of exploiting space-based technology radically shift the manner of conducting space business from the established traditional approaches. Chief among these is building smaller and cheaper spacecraft in a shorter duration. This deviates from the customary lengthy campaigns which resulted in expensive and monolithic spacecraft.

Satellite constellation

Though the relatively smaller spacecraft may have lesser capabilities, this shortcoming is overcome by another emerging trend of flying spacecraft in formation and constellations. Formation flying involves control and maintenance of strict relative positions between formation spacecraft while in a constellation there is no strict enforcement of relative position and loose relative spacecraft position regime is acceptable.

To lower the cost of launching these relatively smaller space platforms, aircraft assisted mid-air launch systems like the Pegasus launch system from Orbital Sciences Corp continue to be part and parcel of the recent trends.

Looking into the future, we can predict multilateral government collaboration in space exploitation to continue dominating efforts in expensive and wide-reaching undertakings like manned spaceflight and deep space exploration missions. However this formula will be relatively less applied in earth observation missions as unilateral government ambitions supplemented by private companies will proliferate this segment. The private sector is envisioned to dominate the communications and visible band imagery segments of the space industry. Though governments used to dominate the visible imagery segment, they are increasingly becoming customers of private companies that have emerged to fill the diminishing government involvement.

To conclude, by venturing into space at this juncture, Kenya is strategically poised to take advantage of the favorable prevailing and future trends in space technology that bolster smaller and cheaper  capabilities that embrace a collaborative sense in function.  Earth observation and satellite communication technologies will most likely entail the entry points in Kenya’s quest to adopt space-based technology for sustainable development.

This post concludes the series on “Space Technology Legacy & Modern Global Trends” and how this is relevant to Kenya’s space ambitions.

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