Bigger picture for our space industry

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Bigger picture for our space industry

Chang Young-keun

The author is a professor at Korea Aerospace University.

The opening of a space age for South Korea was included in the 110-point state agenda of the Yoon Suk-yeol administration. The joint declaration after a summit between South Korea and the United States last month also emphasized a bilateral alliance in the field of space. Such factors have raised expectations for a new growth engine from the space industry.

South Korea plans to launch its homegrown carrier rocket Nuri 2 this week. In April, the presidential transition committee proposed a space agency to develop the aerospace and space industry and create a cluster for the infrastructure. Depending on the inclusion of the aviation sector, the new agency could be called the aviation and space agency or the national space administration. The scope and status of the new agency is still being debated.

Space development was led by governments for political, ideological and military purposes in the past. But today, private-led space development has been brewing. It is dubbed a New Space age. Decades ago, landing men on the moon and building a space station were the pride of a space power. But it has become more important to build a space business that can serve national interests.

The so-called New Space race took off around 2010. Based on its space development experience of 60 years, the United States has been exploring various business applications of space through innovation and colossal private funds. Its habitat has led the New Space industry around the world. Over 1,200 private space enterprises were active as of early this year, including more than 400 in the U.S., over 150 in China and about 50 in Japan.

The traditional space industry was restricted to satellites, launch vehicles and servicing, and telecommunications and broadcasting satellite data employment. The space economy today range from space orbiting service, space mining, construction of commercial space stations to low-orbit satellite constellations for broadcasting and internet, as well as space travel.

South Korea was a laggard in the Old Space habitat. It lacked private-sector technology, specialized manpower, and a transfer of technology due to monopolization of state-invested organizations, not to mention insufficient investments by the private sector.

The weak foundation of the Old Space is a disadvantage for the commercialization of the New Space economy for Korea. During the Old Space environment, space development and exploration projects led by state-run research institutes merely consigned parts or simple repair and other servicing to the private sector. Under such dire circumstances, a radical transition was needed to usher in a New Space era.

To promote the commercialization of the New Space industry with limited resources, the new space administration must be a pan-governmental organization, as satellite employment is needed by almost all government offices — the ministry of defense, the ministry of science and ICT, the ministry of land, infrastructure and transport, as well as the ministry of environment. There must be a role to coordinate satellite projects and prevent possible overlaps in policies. The space agency must draw up a long-term roadmap to enhance the industry. It must establish a Korean space strategy to include space security too.

Korea’s space market is still small as it mostly relies on demand from the government. Domestic demand alone cannot stimulate growth for the space industry. A business model must be developed to ensure competitiveness in price and quality to target the global market. Industry must lead domestic projects to help strengthen the value chain and innovation for space exploration.

Ultimately, state-sponsored research institutes must encourage technology transfers and promotion of skilled human resources. The government also must encourage venture capital and private equity funds to spur the development of the private-sector space industry.

Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
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