i initiative

Space and Development…Increasing Access to Space in Africa

Investing in Space is Profitable for Africa

Posted by Simon Adebola on December 21, 2010

Any close follower of international space programs would have noticed the difference between British space sector activities and those of other countries like the United States, Russia, and China. The major difference has been that the British do not have a human space programme. This was abandoned some decades ago and efforts have been focused on space science, non human space exploration, and space engineering. Although the discussion is ongoing, including the discussion about the tardiness of the British in establishing a space agency, it is clear that the British government is not willing to commit billions in taxpayers’ money towards a human space exploration program. All well and good.

As mentioned earlier, the country has however distinguished itself in astronomy, the manufacture of space payloads and scientific instruments for straightforward and complex missions, and in the manufacture of small satellites at relatively low costs. This has seen the success of private bodies such as the Surrey Space Technologies Limited, Guildford headed by Sir Martin Sweeting and now part of the EADS Astrium NV. It has also witnessed the cross-fertilisation of skills between astronomers, particle physicists, and space engineers and scientists. The rise of Britain as a force in Earth Observation, and even geo-navigation, is also linked to this emphasis on non human space exploration. Then of course one has to mention the growth of space-based telecommunications including broadband internet. Britain exported space tourism to the United States, but further regulations may yet enable the growth of the space tourism industry in the UK. The space industry in the UK keeps growing, according to a recent study, and has proven resistant to economic recession over the last 3 years. The Oxford Economics Consultancy study puts the value at a turnover of 7.5 billion pounds with a 15% employment growth rate.

The success of the British model which up till recently was driven by the innovativeness and commitment of disparate entities from the academia, private sector, professional associations, and interest groups, demonstrates that the ‘bread debate’ is a hapless distraction that has limited growth in the space sector in many developing countries. The ‘bread debate’ suggests that investment in space activities may not be worthwhile if there are other challenges such as poverty, health, and basic infrastructure. There is no doubt, however, that any venture that grows the economy, creates jobs, and drives innovation would ultimately bear on these stated challenges of poverty, health, infrastructure etc. This shows why investment in space activities rather than limit growth in the countries that choose it, has actually boosted economic growth, and generated spin-offs that are enhancing livelihoods. The UK has proven that investment in space need not be solely capital-intensive ventures like human space flight, but that there are many other aspects that hold huge promise for economic prosperity. There is a need for developing countries to change their attitudes and catch up on lost developments. The world is not waiting.

There has been much talk about an African Space Agency, externally driven by ‘Sinophobia’ and European interests. The game is going to be long-drawn. There is however something to be learned from the example of the UK Space Agency. It has commissioned this study that has benchmarked the terrain and adjudged the economic value and potential for growth of the space sector in the UK. It has also clearly laid out a 20 year vision and strategy for growth as shown here. This is intended to be profitable, high tech, and environmentally friendly. It is by no means an inferiority complex-driven pursuit of fleeting national prestige, or an excuse for corrupt governments to enrich themselves, or a basis to trash out lame issues about geographical balance in international representations. Clarity, openness, transparency, foresight, and the common good should be some of the values that should drive a visionary policy that would pave the way for a successful African space program.

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