Korea needs a national space policy
The author is a researcher at the Korea Aerospace Research institute.
“Does Korea have a space policy?” a U.S. official asked me when I visited the State Department a few years ago. He knew of the government research projects on space exploration in Korea, but was unable to identify a specific space-related public policy. The official had been handling space-related affairs for decades, but his counterpart in Seoul was replaced every one or two years. He complained he invariably had to communicate with someone who knew little about space. It was a somewhat rude question that he could ask only because I was not a government employee. But I remember being baffled by his observation.
I was a visiting scholar at the Space Policy Institute of the Elliott School of International Affairs, George Washington University, at the time. A few months after the conversation with the U.S. official, I had another dumbfounding experience when I came to know the U.S. space program from the birth of NASA written by Dr. John Logsdon, “dean of space policy,” who was the founder of the Space Policy Institute. I had seen numerous files and reports, but it was my first encounter with space policy backed by real government documents and records.
The United States had been in a satellite race with the Soviet Union in the early period of space exploration. Public fear and apprehension about falling behind the Soviets and the possibility of a Soviet attack from the skies rose when the Soviets launched Sputnik 1, the world’s first artificial satellite, in 1957. The U.S. government responded prudently. Aircraft needed permission to be in the airspace of a sovereign nation. But no laws regulated activities in space.
The United States, which had been grappling to find a replacement for a U-2 spy plane shot down by the Soviets, chose to ignore the launch of a satellite by declaring outer space beyond its jurisdiction. It focused on the long-term role of space instead of the immediate media hype. The United States remains committed to the principle that outer space is not subject to claims of sovereignty, by occupation or by any other means. It respects all nations’ rights to explore and use space for peaceful purposes and for the benefit of all humanity.
Sputnik provided traction for America to devise a strategy to gain the lead over the Soviets in space exploration. The National Security Council in 1958 announced the National Aeronautics and Space Act to create NASA. President Dwight Eisenhower chaired the National Space Council to make decisions for space projects. After the creation of NASA, the U.S. government explored various options to overtake the Soviets in the space race. Among the options — a space station, a lunar reconnaissance orbiter, an unmanned moon landing — America thought a manned lunar mission would constitute a decisive win.
During a live TV address to the Congress in 1961, President John F. Kennedy announced the Apollo Program with the mission of “landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth.” With Neil Armstrong’s first walk on the moon, in 1969, the U.S. took the lead in the space race. The achievement did not take place through a single project. It was achieved step-by-step.
After Sputnik achieved orbit, governments globally began to fret about objects regularly traversing the skies above. The Office for Outer Space Affairs (OOSA) was established as a United Nations body, and it formed the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space to oversee international law as it relates to space.
In 2019, President Donald Trump described space as “the world’s newest war-fighting domain” and ordered the establishment of a Space Force under the U.S. Air Force. The move — taken to fend off a Chinese challenge to its space leadership — may violate international agreements on the peaceful use of space. It signified an important change in U.S. space policy as it implies militarization of space capabilities.
President Barack Obama laid out a vision for a Mars mission in 2010. In his first action on space policy, Trump in 2018 revised the Obama directive to go further, calling for missions sending astronauts to the moon and then Mars. The U.S. space program differs by president.
Article II of the 1967 UN Outer Space Treaty explicitly prohibits any government from declaring celestial bodies, such as the moon or a planet, as its jurisdiction, and a separate 1979 Moon Treaty stipulates that international cooperation should govern the exploitation of the moon’s natural resources, including the orderly and safe use of natural lunar resources and an equitable sharing by signatories. But only four countries — France, India, Guatemala, and Romania — have signed the treaty. The United States has not.
In an executive order in 2020, Trump made it clear that the “United States does not view outer space as a global commons,” noted that it is a “legally and physically unique domain of human activity” and granted American individuals and corporations “the right to engage in commercial exploration, recovery, and use of resources in outer space.” The executive order charged the Secretary of State with gaining agreements from other countries on this policy.
The executive order came as NASA was pushing the “Artemis program,” which envisions a base camp on the lunar surface, a mini space station by 2024, and the establishment of a gateway for Artemis missions to the moon and Mars. States wishing to join the mission have been invited to sign up. The contract establishes guidelines for the employment of space resources, which is seen as a way to negate the UN principles on space exploration.
A national space policy is a declaration of the country’s long-term strategy and direction in space. Korea has not declared its vision for space development. The United States has issued presidential decrees and executive orders to specify comprehensive guidelines for the exploration of space and followed up with action plans. Korea has a basic plan on space development, but they are individual projects, not a binding government policy. The country needs to set a long-term vision and a systematic road map to achieve the vision.
Korea has no government document specifically entitled “Space Policy.” We won’t be able to match grand plans like those of the United States. But we must be able to specify the philosophy and value in space development. The United Arab Emirates, with a population of 10 million, studied space technology from Korea. It set up a space administration in 2014, and in 2017 established national space strategy for 2030. Marking the 50th year of national founding last year, it sent the “Hope” spacecraft to Mars. The mission has been initiated for the day the planet runs out of oil.
Space development is not a simple economic step. It must factor in various elements — strategic readiness for national security, future industries and bases for space resources. All U.S. presidents have paid attention to space programs. The country has achieved wealth and prestige as a result.
Space development can demonstrate full national capabilities as it is connected and coordinated with science and technology and industrial, military, political and diplomatic capabilities. Over 70 governments have state agencies devoted to space development. Korea does not have one. It merely has a space technology division at the Ministry of Science and ICT. This is why a U.S. State Department official can ask if Korea has a space policy.
The government must ready a space vision timed with the 100th anniversary of liberation in 2045. The new president must establish a government office on space programs to guide the country’s next century. Korea is No. 10 in terms of GDP. Russia, a space powerhouse, is 11th.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.