[ANALYSIS] Korea made it to space, but where does that take it?
Korea blasted satellites into orbit using its own rocket, becoming the seventh member of the exclusive club of space nations.
But analysts warn that's just the beginning of a long journey, not the end.
A big milestone was reached on June 21 with the second launch of the Nuri rocket, or the Korea Space Launch Vehicle-II (KSLV-II).
But where did that leave Korea exactly?
The media imaginatively speculated that would soon be shooting military spy satellites into space or developing long-range intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). Some assumed that Korea would gain traction in the 6G telecommunications race by shooting communication satellites into orbit.
But that won’t happen any time soon; before getting its ambitions up, Korea needs to tackle a myriad of challenges, such as high costs and limited budgets.
“We are now at the mere starting point of space development,” said Chang Young-keun, an aerospace engineering professor at Korea Aerospace University. “[The Nuri launch] was a great achievement for us, yes, but other countries did that back in the 1950s.”
The Soviet Union was the first country to launch a satellite of over 1 ton in 1957, 65 years ago. The United States followed the next year, and then the European Union (in 1965), China and Japan (1970), and India (1980). Israel, Iran and North Korea have succeeded in launching satellites weighing less than 300 kilograms.
The rocket technologies used in the KSLV-II were part of a traditional, single-use launch system, which is expensive. To make rockets more commercially viable, Korea needs to adopt a reusable system like the one deployed by California-based SpaceX, controlled by Elon Musk. SpaceX has cut launch costs significantly by reusing the first-stage rocket.
SpaceX’s reusable Falcon 9 rocket can carry a 23-ton payload at the price of $2,700 per kilogram or $67 million per launch. The Nuri rocket can carry a 1.5-ton payload, and though the exact cost of each launch has not been disclosed, it is estimated at about double to three times that of Falcon 9, according to Chang.
Clearly at this point, someone wanting to launch something into space could do it much more cheaply with SpaceX.
But rockets are not just a business. A country’s capability to reach space is also a military power and countries like Korea have to develop their own rockets since technology transfers for such powerful abilities are limited.
Since 2010, Korea invested about 1.96 trillion won ($1.5 billion) into perfecting its own space rocket. The June 21 launch was the second and last test launch for the KSLV-II rocket, following the first trial on Oct. 21, 2021, which reached space but failed to put its dummy payload into the proper orbit.
A third launch of the Nuri rocket is slated for early next year, and it will be carrying a 100-kilogram next-generation small satellite developed by KAIST.
The science ministry and the Korea Aerospace Research Institute (KARI), which oversaw the Nuri program, plan to launch the KSLV-II four times more through 2027 to prove the reliability of its technology with an estimated budget of 687.4 billion won. Commercial operation will begin after 2027 with the third-generation model of the KSLV, or KSLV-III.
The ultimate goal is to send an unmanned lunar lander to the Moon on the KSLV-III rocket by 2030. The 1.9 trillion-won Moon landing project will run from 2023 through 2031.
In the meantime, however, Korea will use other countries to send things into space since it's cheap and reliable. Korea's first lunar orbiter is scheduled for launch this August on SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket. SpaceX will also send into orbit five military surveillance satellites, which cost Korea $970 million since 2018 to develop, from next year through 2025.
The success of the Nuri does not mean that Korea can or will build an ICBM with its technology, contrary to popular belief.
“There are almost no cases of turning [a rocket] designed to be a satellite launch vehicle into an ICBM,” said Chang of the Korea Aerospace University. “The rocket technology is largely the same [between ICBMs and launch vehicles] … but the liquid fuel used for the launch vehicle is not applicable for missile launches.”
For Korea to compete with space industry frontrunners like China and Japan, the private sector should play a bigger role, said experts.
“We need to fast track the transition in the space sector from government-led to private-led,” emphasized Chang.
Over the past decade in the West, the space industry has shifted from the so-called "old space era," in which government agencies controlled space projects and technological advancements, to the "new space era," led by the private sector. The United States’ SpaceX, Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic are three prominent examples.
“NASA transferred its technologies to SpaceX, helping the company in developing launch vehicles such as Falcon 9,” said Chang.
Korea's private sector contributed to the Nuri launch, with over 300 domestic companies participating in the KSLV-II program. But the program was still largely led by the state-run KARI.
"In SpaceX's success, both the creativity of the private sector and the government's management and guidelines played parts," said Park Myeong-gu, an astronomy professor at Kyungpook National University. "So Korea's space industry may also be able to get more competitive if the private sector is given more freedom and encouragement."
When running for president, Yoon Suk-yeol pledged to establish a space agency and to actively support the space industry by transferring technologies to private companies.
Chang said that any new space agency should reduce the bureaucracy.
“Back in the early days when countries were just beginning to establish space agencies, they were mostly for political purposes, as in the case of the space race between the United States and the Soviet Union,” said Chang, “but these days … the role of a space agency should be to foster a space economy, and therefore make money out of it.”
At the same time, some experts argue that the government, as well as big companies, should ramp up investments in the local space industry.
“Many local aerospace companies are not yet equipped with technologies or business models necessary to survive on their own, unlike the overseas frontrunners,” said Lee Kyun-ho, associate professor of the aerospace engineering department at Sejong University. “Moreover, many large companies are reluctant to invest in the space businesses due to low profitability.”
Lee said that “the government should expand investment in space development, encouraging the corporations to secure their own technology and competitiveness,” and private companies “should make more aggressive investments to secure technologies and personnel, to wade into and create a new market.”
Korea’s budget for space falls far short of other countries.
According to data compiled by the Ministry of Science and ICT, the United States budget for space development in 2021 was $48.6 billion, or 0.21 percent of its GDP. China budgeted $9.1 billion, or 0.04 percent of its GDP, Russia $4.0 billion or 0.20 percent, and Japan $3.3 billion or 0.06 percent.
Korea spent $616 million, 0.04 percent of its GDP, on the space sector last year.
"Not only industry but also academics are repeatedly speaking about the need for governmental support," said an aerospace industry insider. "We need an integrated governance system, involving a new space agency, to foster and develop the local industry."
BY SHIN HA-NEE [email@example.com]