On the 14th of December last year, a routine coronavirus briefing in Thailand became significantly less mundane when a Thai minister accidentally announced an ambitious plan to build, launch and operate a lunar orbiter within seven years. This was met with near-universal scorn from Thai people on social media as yet another of the crazy policy by the kingdom’s hugely unpopular military led-government. The program itself was not meant to be announced until early this year – but, slowly more details have steadily been released before all was unveiled on January 13th. With a budget of 3 billion baht (approximately £72 million, or $100 million), it aims to launch a craft massing 300kg, ferrying microsatellites to lunar orbit to carry out observations and gather data.
Unsurprisingly, another torrent of criticism followed the release of all the details. Some questioned its small budget and fast timeframe. Predictably though, most questioned the fundamental value of a lunar orbiter. This was a project already undertaken by other space programs, with the reasonable assumption that government funds should be spent on better things in a country with a bleak economic outlook.
Of course, these criticisms have some validity. Nonetheless, there are arguably more merits to programs like these for developing nations than would be apparent at first glance. Many lunar programs, such as the Apollo project, and the corresponding Luna programme of the Soviet Union did cost far more than the allotted Thai budget, or than any nation short of a superpower could ever afford to spend on a program.
It is not the 1960s anymore, and more recent lunar lander programs, by India’s IRSO, and Israel’s ISA, are much more comparable in cost, with budgets around $100 million (the two programs took seven and eight years, respectively). True, both countries have much more experience in launching and manufacturing as well as longer history of lunar operations than most developing nations; still, they also were building lunar landers, which are much more technically complicated (evident by the fact both landers crashed on their landing attempts).
The claims that developing nations have more important things to spend their money on also have some legitimacy; but, of the 200-odd nations in the world, for 130 nations, it would account for less than half a per cent of government spending over seven years. For Thailand, India, and Israel, the relative or projected costs of their programs account for less than 0.02% of government spending over a seven-year timescale. This is not a small amount of money but contrasted with the budget for the king of Thailand, Indian corporate tax cuts, or Israeli corruption scandals, it is a rounding error.
Now, this of course does not mean that it could not be spent better. Yet, if other space programs are anything to go by, their return of investment directly and indirectly alone justifies the money spent. The Apollo program has been estimated to have a return of investment of anywhere from $2 to the dollar to $40 to the dollar as a result of the direct and indirect employment; the spinoff technologies and companies spawned by the advances in research of the program. A less sensational and more modern program, like the United Kingdom’s Space Agency (UKSA), has been touted to have a return of investment for space science programs as anywhere between £2 to £4 directly, with £4 to £14 indirectly, for each pound spent. Considering that the UKSA accounts for 0.04% of the total budget, it is much more of an apt comparison than NASA and the Apollo project, which peaked at 5% of the US budget.
Despite strong evidence that investment in space is a good form of investment for development, there are more persuasive reasons for a program like this. These types of programs are ambitious, and, in all likelihood, will overrun, both on time and budget. Only seven agencies (six national agencies, and the European Space Agency) have achieved lunar orbiters before. For both Israel and India, the success of their programs was much to the surprise of the rest of the world, especially compared to the conventional wisdom which informs the gargantuan budgets of ROSCOSMOS and NASA. Developing nations just simply have seldom attempted things like this before. These programs, however, would be a good chance to set up governmental, industrial, and academic infrastructure that would place them at the frontier of development in space.
One of the most important aspects which have been overlooked most in the commentary around space programs is the chance to stem the brain drain that plagues many developing nations. Space programs have always been inspirational and are great ways for governments to retain national talent and inspire more people to get into scientific fields. Space programs are also great ways of creating national investments, as many space agencies are limited to only citizens. Many companies founded in the expansion of a space sector are partially or fully government-owned. This means that investment will stay grounded in the country and no profits and benefits will be sucked up by foreign companies.
Lunar programs would be a great opportunity for any developing nation if handled well by their government; but, many developing nations are beset with corruption scandals. An additional obstacle to any developing nation is the lure of just buying services and products from western companies to further a theoretical lunar program; this is what many developing nations have done previously for terrestrial satellite projects. Whilst this may be an attractive option, as it utilises western experience and established industry, it does not bring any of the development to the nation and may end up in the budget-overrun hell that too many western projects have ended up in recently. This would defeat the main point of the program and would result in little benefit outside the direct impact of the satellites: telecommunication infrastructure and earth observation data.
The case is clear for developing nations’ involvement in space exploration and programs like India’s, Israel’s, or Thailand’s are exciting. Such programs drive innovations in low budget space exploration and spread the budding space sector boom to more nations. Developing nations can also leverage the space sector as a tool for national investment in high-class research and development capabilities. The barrier to space is lessening and will continue to do so in the years to come, and developing nations should look to not get left behind.
Image credit: NASA via Wikimedia & Creative Commons.