Nigeria currently does not have any launch system in development and relies on Chinese and Russian rockets to launch its satellites into orbit. Yet, Nigeria is promising to launch its first astronaut by the year 2030!
The black man- a laggard in the global technological race
The concept of ‘space divide’ summarizes the damning sluggishness of Africa on the technological front now indexed increasingly on the race to outer space. What the concept is coined to convey is the fact of a widening gap between the advanced countries on one hand and their underdeveloped counterparts on the other using technological attainment as measuring rod. It is too obvious for restating that the black race is embarrassingly far behind others on this critical score.
This note of lamentation is without prejudice to the fact that “the African Union’s commitment to space has accelerated the growth of the African space industry. More than 20 national space agencies or space-related institutions have been established on the continent over the past five or so years”. The fact nonetheless remains that Nigeria, as foremost collective of blacks on the entire globe, presently cannot claim to possess the technical know-how to participate actively and independently in space related activities as a service provider. It has remained essentially a nation of consumers of space-derived products being harvested by the leaders in the technological league and who have been investing heavily in space exploration.
Essence and scale of space exploration
Space explorations are grouped into sectors: civil, national security (i.e., defense and intelligence), and commercial. Each sector operates with its own goals and assets, although they all rely on a common space industrial base, workforce, and infrastructure. Val Munsami, Chancellor of International Space University in France, has offered a vivid picture of the essence of space exploration as he notes:
Our modern lifestyles are intimately dependent on space products and services. Meteorological and communication satellites are placed in geostationary orbits at an altitude of 36,000km above the equator. At this point above the Earth, they complete one orbit every 24 hours in the direction of the planet’s rotation, appearing, essentially, motionless – and providing a constant gaze on the same geographic location. They provide a wealth of information that fuels the everyday services we take for granted, but that are essential for our everyday lives, from health to education to the economy. From their vantage point, geostationary orbit satellites provide our daily weather reports, monitor climate-related cycles and offer a platform for near-instantaneous communications across the globe to relay multimedia, live sporting events and up-to-the-minute global news.
The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) rightly acknowledges that “space activities are expanding globally, with a record number of countries and commercial firms investing in space programmes. Never before has there been so much interest in the space economy, with satellites in orbit registered in over 80 countries and growing public and private investments”.
Dylan Taylor-Chairman & CEO of Voyager Space Holdings, in his April 11, 2022 piece on: “The importance of space exploration to the global economy”, opened with the confident assertion: “The New Space Sector holds exciting promises for the global economy”, pointing to real life outcomes and impact of space illustrated by how:
Satellites offer unprecedented global communication and access to beloved radio stations, but they also come in handy during times of crisis. At the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, satellites were used to track the spread of the disease. Images provided to the United Nations by Planet, a remote sense company, demonstrated the decrease in social and economic activity as stay-at-home orders went into effect. Similarly, Maxar Technologies offered the CDC access to highly-detailed maps of rural areas, helping aid workers reach vulnerable communities.
As indication of the scale of space exploration, in 2020, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) landed a spacecraft on an asteroid 200 million miles from Earth. There is Space Research at Harvard Business School under its Space Research Network-with explicit focus on Economics of Space-with its stated vision stated as: “We hope to provide a focal-point for research-driven discussions of commercial space and help to open the space sector to a broad range of talented individuals”.
These developments are what triggered the staff of Deloitte to declare triumphantly in early 2023, that: The economics of space has never been more compelling. This is further helped by the decreasing cost of space exploration on the observation that: Over the past few years, challenges to manufacturing, launching, and operating satellites and other space-based assets have diminished significantly. Satellites have been “miniaturized,” costing less to produce and operate than ever before. And thanks to reusable rocketry, launch costs are much lower today. Accelerating these developments, digital and advanced technologies are helping new players to access satellite operators’ data and explore new business applications.
The main factors instigating the ballooning of space exploration have been identified as:
• advances in technology;
• increased private sector investment: In this vein, as of the end of 2022, the global space sector had attracted private equity (PE) firms’ investments of about US$272 billion into 1,791 unique companies since 2013; and
• rising demand for space data and related products and services- in which specialized companies deliver high-quality data directly to their customers
As carefully explained by John Coykendall et al on the platform of Deloitte Insights the major categories of players in the space ecosystem are as itemized below:
(i) Space companies whose primary business or a major segment of their business is Space. These companies build products such as launch vehicles and satellites and/or provide services to consumers from Space. Customers can include both government and nongovernment segments.
(ii) Government agencies, who build, launch, and manage space-based capabilities for national security and scientific research and development. This also includes policy and standards development.
(iii) Non-space companies that are impacted by space commercialization and services. They may be exploring an entry into the space market and could need assistance to get there.
Economic benefits of space exploration
Without mincing words, GIORGIO PETRONI, while writing the Introduction to the book, The Space Economy: From Science to Market, jointly edited with Barbara Bigliardi and published by Cambridge Scholars Publishing in 2019, declared categorically that:
From its inception, the modern conquest of space has been characterised by an important economic dimension.
On his own part, upfront, a U.S-based tax-exempt research and education organization, reason Foundation, provided a list of many space-based activities having commercial potential; they include:
• tapping space-based clean energy sources
• mining asteroids for useful raw materials
• developing safe venues for scientific experiments
• upcycling/sequestering hazardous but valuable debris currently in space
• tapping sources of water already in space, to decouple into oxygen and hydrogen for space fuels and oxidizers, and to provide radiation shielding mass
• using the low-gravity, low-temperature and other properties of space for many activities, including manufacturing and research
In its Background Paper for the G20 Space Economy Leaders’ Meeting (Space20) held in Saudi Arabia on October 7, 2020 entitled, “Measuring the Economic Impact of the Space Sector: Key Indicators and Options to Improve Data”, the OECD documented how the G20 governments’ space budgets amounted to some USD 79 billion in 2019, supporting broad socio-economic purposes and the development of scientific capacities, in addition to national security and governance objectives. According to the regional body, as the applications of space technologies multiply, so do the derived impacts. In concrete terms, “space activities can yield diverse economic benefits, including via employment, revenues, technological and scientific excellence, and innovation . . . Ever more ‘down-to-earth’ activities are derived from satellite signals and data, contributing to new economic activities often far removed from initial investments in space infrastructure”.
In the economically and technologically advanced economies, the economic benefits of space exploration have become especially glaring. For example, for the USA, overall, the data from its NASA show that “total economic output in 2019 was $64.3 billion and supported over 312,000 jobs. Additionally, space-related production was found to represent 0.5 percent of US gross domestic product in 2018”.
Estimates suggest the global space industry could be worth US$600bn by 2030. From the empirical study carried out by KPMG-an international consulting firm-in their special feature: “30 Voices on 2030-The Future of Space”, published in May 2020, comes this insightful report:
It’s clear that the next ten years offer significant opportunities for those in the space industry – and beyond. To bring to life what our presence in space in 2030 may look like, we spoke to 30 industry leaders – heads of agency, lawyers, surgeons, investors, entrepreneurs, academics and politicians – who painted a very vivid, exciting and challenging vision of what we can expect. Their predictions for the industry envisage significant change in the next ten years, touching on the following: i) Humans will live, work and holiday in space; ii) Deep space exploration; iii) Space business models; iv) Space data comes back to Earth; and v) Sustainability in space.
Now there are talks about “the space economy” and “the new space economy”-referring to the rising commercialization of space exploration with job placements for space economists featuring in online advertisements. In 2020, a private company sent American astronauts to the International Space Station, both for the first time. However, the outcome is not always rosy; for example, on Thursday-April 20, 2023, the global media space yielded involuntarily to the following headlines:
Space X giant rocket explodes minutes after launch from Texas and crashed into the Gulf of Mexico-- as reported by Marcia Dunn for Associated Press.
Interestingly, six day later, precisely on April 25, a Nigerian journalist, Tunde Asaju, undertook a comical yet poignant overview of this space misfortune under the provocative heading: ”Brother Musk and the Sudanese Warlords” which main body read:
Twelve billion US dollars-that was how much our son Elon Musk burnt within four minutes last week prospecting for greater glory above our heads. Musk was pursuing his dream of someday sending people on voyage to the galaxies beyond earth. With pregnant expectations, Musk watched his multi-billion dollar spacecraft disengage from its launching pad in Texas and within four minutes, it went up in flames its ashes scattered across the ocean. It was another dream burst for mankind. By the time the flames had dissipated, Musk and ecstatic scientists congratulated themselves and probably sauntered to their favourite watering holes to drown their misfortune.
The reporter reminded us that Musk was born in Pretoria, South Africa and he is the CEO of Spacex, the group behind the launch- with the valuable rider that: “He successfully launched astronauts from NASA into orbit and pulled people to the edge of space with his Endeavor space capsule. Tickets were estimated between $250,000 and half a million dollars per head”. Clearly, there are instructive allusions in this awkward imaginative commentary, not least among which the sheer quantum of funds available to some private individuals on a planet of many hungry citizens, a paradox considered unjust by Oxfam International.
.Looking back and into the future of Nigeria and Africa in space exploration
In anticipating what the future holds for space exploration in Africa, the starting point is the extant space policy-which refers to the official projection and preparedness of a country or continent to develop a coherent programme of space exploration. Taking Nigeria as a case study, the Chambers of Barrister Agbakoba (Olisa Agbakoba Legal-OAL), in the August 25, 2022 publication titled: “Developing a New National Space Policy for Nigeria”, recalled how:
Nigeria was one of the first African nations to develop a national space policy. The National Space Policy (NSP) was developed and approved in 2000, and a 25-year roadmap for its implementation was endorsed in 2005. The main goals were for the Nigerian space program to: manufacture a Nigerian satellite; have a Nigerian astronaut; and create a Nigerian launch vehicle to launch Nigerian-made satellites from a spaceport located in Nigeria.
The lawyers went further to give a report which reads like a fairy tale but indeed constitutes factual details on Nigeria-as follows: six research centres and two companies were established within the short-term economic development plan. The research centres are the Centre for Remote Sensing, Jos; Centre for Satellite Technology Development, Abuja; Centre for Geodesy and Geodynamics, Toro; Centre for Space Transport and Propulsion, Epe; Centre for Basic Space Science and Astronomy, Nsukka; and Centre for Space Science and Technology Education, Ile-Ife. The two companies are the Nigeria Communication Satellite (NigComSat) Limited and GeoApps Plus Limited (previously called Nigeriasat Imageries and Consultancy Services Limited). NigComSat Limited was set up in April 2006 to market products from Nigerian communication satellites. Similarly, GeoApps Plus Limited was established in September 2007 to market products from the Nigerian earth observation satellites.
All these were to come under a specialized institution, the National Space Research and Development Agency (NSRDA) through which website we are formally informed that it serves as a regulator for space activities within Nigeria by both citizens and non‐citizens. The agency was established under the Federal Ministry of Science and Technology in 1999, and it is responsible for promoting and advancing space activities and applications for socioeconomic development through space-related research and development (R&D); it has one of Africa’s most advanced and active space programmes. Then there is the National Space Council responsible for issuing licenses to private innovators to participate in the sector. But, wait for it:
Nigeria currently does not have any launch system in development and relies on Chinese and Russian rockets to launch its satellites into orbit.
Yet, Nigeria is promising to launch its first astronaut by the year 2030! Additionally, what do we make of NASDRA’s public announcement way back in March 2021, of “putting modalities in place to launch a Cubesat ‘Edusat-2’ within the first half of the year” -even as the CubeSat would cost less than N20 million to build. The patriotic concern about the lack of a launch system quoted above came from Aerospace Security- a project of the Center for Strategic and International Studies-in a piece, “Challenges and Opportunities of Nigeria’s Space Program” penned by Tyler Way as shared on June 24, 2020 where it provides a historical background and progress on the Nigerian space front, reporting that:
In 2003, Nigeria procured the launch of its first satellite, NigeriaSat-1, an Earth observation satellite that became part of the international Disaster Monitoring Constellation (DMC). Since then, Nigeria has launched a total of five satellites, with three still operational as of 2020. This includes the first satellite designed and built by engineers from African countries.
Turning to the continental scene, it becomes pertinent to recall the observation of Val Munsami
Chancellor, International Space University in France, and former CEO of the South African National Space Agency, published in The World Today of August 3, 2022, to the effect that: “Increasingly, attention is also turning to the contribution that the space industry can make to progress on the continent. Space-based products and services have a critical role to play in meeting national and continental priorities, as underpinned by the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals and the African Union’s Agenda 2063 – the bloc’s strategic framework for development, democracy and peace.”
Without doubt and as widely acknowledged, the applications and problem-solving innovations provided by space products and services are endless. However, to ensure the effective uptake and utilization of such products and services, certain building blocks are needed as prerequisites for robust national and regional space ecosystems, namely:
the human capital required to establish and operate the space initiatives;
a significant industry base to capitalize on the commercial aspects of the space sector;
the requisite infrastructure needed to support the space value chain; and
international cooperation to ensure knowledge transfer and diffusion – so that we don’t have to reinvent the wheel.
Whereas emphasis on international cooperation [ref the last bullet point above] as an acknowledgement of the fact that no nation in modern era can survive and make progress as literal island of autarkic status, overdependence on other countries especially outside its continent- on critical programmes such as space exploration may undermine national sovereignty and development. It is in this cautionary sense that the following forms of cooperation do not appeal to one’s sense of national patriotism:
In 2003, NASRDA’s collaboration with UK-based Surrey Satellite Technology led to the launch of NigeriaSat-1;
The following year (2004), the Nigerian government contracted the China Great Wall Industry Corporation for the manufacture and in-orbit delivery of a communications satellite known as NigComSat-1;
On 17th August 2011, Nigeria launched two more earth observation satellites, NigeriaSat-2 and NigeriaSat-X, for disaster and environmental monitoring missions. UK-based Surrey Space Technology Limited built NigeriaSat-2 and provided technical training for Nigerian engineers to build NigeriaSat-X, as part of the contract.
“China launched a new Nigerian communications satellite on Monday in Xichang. The launch – adding to China’s record year – took place at 16:41 UTC”. This report was carried by African Spotlight on December 19, 2011- under the bold heading: “Nigeria Launches Satellite in China”.
No attempt here to summarily dismiss the efforts of Nigeria’s space regulatory agency but one thing is beyond dispute: In all of the above, a robust and focused space policy with explicit feasible strategies- marked by clear, verifiable targets-must be put in place. This perspective presupposes a political leadership with an unwavering commitment to national and continental development agenda. The question is: How do we identify and bring on board such leaders? I come in peace, please.