Remember the space race? Actually, there’s a good chance you don’t, considering that it concluded nearly forty years ago. And though we’re arguably still living in the “Space Age”, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the promise of a new frontier faded as quickly as it captured people’s imaginations. In the once futuristic sounding space-year of 2012, only a single nation has ever set foot on another world. In fact, only three agencies are independently capable of manned spaceflight. And even as the Chinese National Space Administration (CNSA) makes significant progress, NASA has been scaling back, currently relying on Russian Soyuz rockets to access space.
Nevertheless, a background level of enthusiasm for space is there in the background. In the news recently is that the UK (specifically, Scotland) and Sweden are courting infamous private venture Virgin Galactic for the chance to offer a European base for its unique brand of space tourism. In fact the UK’s space industry is reportedly already contributing £3.6 billion to the wider economy. And with Space a venue of limitless possibility (in theory, literally) governments around the world have space agencies, whether or not they actually have a launch capability. Without wishing to sound patronising, here are some of the lesser known:
African nations are both the most unexpected and often actually the most logical candidates for launch sites. It is simplest to launch near the equator in the easterly direction, for instance. And spaceports typically require vast amounts of space, positioned away from over populated areas (for safety and the simple fact that rocket launches are disruptive!). However, even with the potential for economic gain, space travel is understandably seen as a luxury compared to more pressing financial concerns.
Nonetheless, Nigeria’s National Space Research and Development Agency (NASRDA) is a standout example of an African space agency. At present the agency operates two satellites, one providing internet access in rural areas, and the second capable of taking images to monitor pollution, land use and other mid-scale demographic data. Considering the agency was only established in 1998, they’ve come along in leaps and bounds. And with a project to put the first Nigerian astronaut in space by 2015, and to achieve independent launches by 2018, Nigeria is a name to watch.
United Nations (UNOOSA and UNCOPUOUS)
My, those are long acronyms. There are UN offices for just about everything, so perhaps the existence of two (the first for ‘Outer Space Affairs’, the other for ‘Peaceful Uses of Outer Space’) isn’t entirely surprising. The fact that these agencies have existed in some form since the late fifties, thereby predating most other agencies is suprising. Also of note is the fact that UNOOSA is intended to be the first official point of call for any extra-terrestrial life, though the appointment of a specific ‘extraterrestrial spokesperson’ in 2010 turned out to be an unsubstantiated rumor. Also, Will Smith would probably get there first anyway.
Sri Lanka (SLASA)
The next decade will see several new players in the now orderly queue of the space race, many of which will focus on having their first satellites in orbit. Among them is the Sri Lanka Aeronautics and Space Agency, which is currently collaborating with UK-University-based Surrey Satellite Technology on two satellites – one of which specifically in a disaster relief role. In addition the University of Surrey is training up the SLASA’s future staff.
With proximity to the equator and relatively healthy economies, Middle Eastern nations are obvious candidates for space infrastructure. Israel, Iran and Saudi Arabia (as well as a forthcoming Arab League agency) are all in space. The ISA is particularly notable because Israel is the smallest country that has the ability to independently launch rockets into space. It is also notable for having sent humans into space (though tragically, its first astronaut was killed in the Columbia shuttle disaster).
Much of South America is well situated to provide easy exit at the Equator, but the Equator runs directly through Ecuador. Seeing the potential, the Ecuadorian Civilian Space Agency (EXA) was established just five years ago, but are certainly one to watch in 2012. In addition to launching the NEE-01 PEGASUS, on-board a Russian rocket in the third quarter of this year, the EXA is pressing ahead with plans for their first manned suborbital flight before the new year. Thinking long term, the EXA has already planned Manned Orbital and even Lunar missions.