The final economic frontier

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The final economic frontier

Cho Kwang-rae

The author is a former president of the Korea Aerospace Research Institute.

Space experts from foreign countries applaud Korea for making strides in the field of space development. Recently, the country successfully launched the Nuri rocket — its first domestically-developed rocket — and its first lunar orbiter, Danuri, is on track to reach the moon. The successful launch of Nuri does not merely signify the acquiring of our own technology for space launch vehicles. The achievement is key to sovereign activities in a new territory, space.

Leading countries have already advanced into space based on their strength in launch vehicles. Thanks to their advanced technology and massive investment, the countries hold vested interests in space development and the so-called space economy. Space development over the past decades not only affected our daily lives and industries, but has grown to a huge industry to produce brand new products and services, as seen in numerous space businesses by diverse space enterprises.

Space Foundation — a nonprofit organization offering education, information and collaboration for space exploration and space-inspired industries — estimates the size of the global space economy at $469 billion in 2021. (The size of the global semiconductor market in 2020 was $277.6 billion.) Morgan Stanley expects the global space economy to exceed $1 trillion in 30 years.

The rapid expansion of the space economy owes much to a drastic increase in space investment by the private sector. Currently, three fourths of the business is taken up by civilian companies. Quite noticeable is the heated race among space powers — and among major space companies — to take the initiative. The U.S., the European Union (EU) and Japan competitively announced plans to augment their space industry.

For Korea too, fostering a space industry on the national level to develop the space economy has become paramount as AI, Big Data and self-driving cars are deeply connected to the space industry. You can hardly deny that Korea’s future national competitiveness depends on developing its space industry.

After the success of the Nuri rocket in June, President Yoon Suk-yeol declared his vision for the space economy. “The key to our future competitiveness lies in space,” he said. Yoon pledged to make large investments in space, set up a national space and aeronautics agency, and nurture the space industry to open a new era. The president’s remarks carry great significance as he made it clear that Korea will take the same path as advanced countries and companies are racing to expand their space businesses.

But there are many challenges for Korea to open the new era successfully. Though the promising launch of the Nuri rocket helped Korea escalate to seventh in space power, the country has a long way to go. Korea must prepare — and implement — a creative roadmap to accelerate the development of a space industry by narrowing the technology gap with space juggernauts. Renowned space experts believe that Korea can have global competitiveness in space if the country utilizes its cutting-edge technology and capabilities well.

First of all, Korea must start to develop the next-generation launch vehicles with better payload capacity than the Nuri and enhance their space exploration capability. The government must expand its space investment, and speed the transfer of space technologies it accumulated through state-run research institutes to the private sector. At the same time, companies must increase their space investments to maximize the effect of government investment. They must elevate themselves to the level of “actors” in space development, not merely “participators.”

Global space enterprises such as SpaceX and Blue Origin are dominating the market through preemptive investment and innovative businesses, including space internet, travel, exploration and resource acquisition, not to mention space launch vehicles. The U.S. government has already established a system that allows its space companies to have the ownership of space resources. The day when Korea — a resource-poor country — has to enter the heated international race for space resources will come soon.

Space will become a pivotal part of the economy. As a Top 10 economy, Korea must ratchet up its space industry to become a leader. The country must secure its stake in space, which is without borders and owners, as soon as possible.

Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
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