The fact that the world’s news is focused on the coronavirus pandemic to the exclusion of everything else should not be understood to mean that no other newsworthy events are happening. For example, US President Donald Trump last month issued an “Executive Order on Encouraging International Support for the Recovery and Use of Space Resources.” This order lays out national policy on using space resources, particularly the US’ position on the 1979 Moon Agreement. The broader, more important point is that, even during this pandemic, national space programs are and should be moving forward with their agendas. This applies to all the countries — including the US, China, India, Japan, Russia and especially the Arab nations — that are using space exploration as an engine of technological and industrial development.
But ambitious goals demand difficult actions. The emergent nature of space agencies and technology across the Arab world means individual countries may not have the critical mass of domestic experts, engineers and scientists to set up a full-fledged program — even when the funding is available. Also, commitment to large-scale vision programs means that adding new priorities will stretch resources even further. Correct technological and policy resourcing for individual space programs will be a greater challenge than funding for the Gulf states.
International cooperation is an effective tool for pooling the resources, talent and commitment needed for impressive accomplishments in space. Yet nations may still find themselves with very different approaches to identifying and applying the ways, ends and means to achieve their goals. Further, cooperation can sometimes dilute the political and intangible benefits of exploration by turning national achievements into minor footnotes.
Space programs everywhere face a common challenge: Balancing international cooperation with distinct national goals. Fortunately, the Arab world is blessed with three unique advantages in resolving that tension.
First, the Arab world shares cultural, linguistic and historical roots that translate into common values, as well as engineering, bureaucratic and business practices. Not only does this help reduce friction, it allows the partners to share more fully in the successes. A broad regional effort could allow some of the same political and technological cohesion enjoyed by the US, Russia, China and India.
Second, as nations across the Arab world are establishing or revitalizing space programs, the regional cooperative structure is still in the discussion phase. Typically, national programs exist before cooperative efforts emerge, meaning that the collaborative framework must devote significant focus to bringing together parts that were never intended to work as one. Conversely, creating a new national program when international frameworks already exist means that the new program can become nothing but a local branch office for the larger whole. But, in the case of the Arab world, when both national programs and an international framework are being developed at the same time, it means that they can grow in unison as independent, interoperable parts that can coordinate effectively and efficiently.
Third, many nations throughout the region are deep in the middle of planning their long-term industrial and technological development strategies. They can benefit from using space exploration as a focal point. In recent decades, China has been quite clear about its investment in space exploration: It is intended to promote technological growth, build capacity and develop a workforce across its entire economy.
A worthy long-term objective for a similar effort might involve an Arab program to send humans into space without outside help, something only the US, Russia and China have so far accomplished. But this monumental project, while possible, will require decades of work. In the near term, it is better to start with a more achievable and pragmatic goal.
Arab space cooperation has already produced the successful Arabsat program, and now work on the 813 program for an Earth observation satellite is well underway.
The next step for the Arab world could be a position, navigation, and timing (PNT) satellite constellation. All major spacefaring powers have their own PNT constellations. An Arab PNT program would be an ideal project for regional collaboration. A constellation with satellites in a quasi-zenith orbit over the Arabian Peninsula could promote the domestic industrialization of information technology (for both hard and software), as well as sparking the development of precision manufacturing and aerospace systems.
A regional PNT (or any other major) space effort must address many challenges.
However, existing successful space programs, particularly those of the US and Europe, can provide useful insights.
The next step for the Arab world could be a position, navigation, and timing (PNT) satellite constellation.
The US program, while not multinational, provides a great example of how to run a broad effort where there is a common history and language, but sometimes competing local political interests (for example, Texas, Florida and Alabama) and no formal partnership arrangements. The 10 different NASA centers have relied on a mix of strategies, including specialization, interdependence and the careful allocation of program management responsibilities to work together while maintaining broad political support.
Meanwhile, the example of the European Space Agency provides lessons about the challenges, intricacies and formal mechanisms necessary to manage complex systems integration among partners operating without clear central political authority. There are valuable lessons here too, including the geographical return policy, the combination of mandatory and optional programs, and visible agenda-setting through the ministerial process.
The grand challenges of setting up a successful national space program in the framework of Arab cooperation come with the potential for an equally large (or even larger) payoff. Interest in space is on the rise around the globe. Opportunities for nations to spark substantial economic and technological growth, while reaping a variety of political dividends, are few and far between.
Unlike the Cold War-driven model of the past, the future of space will be global.
Now is the time for Arab nations to seize the opportunity to make their mark on the future of humanity and incorporate their cultural legacy into the societies, structures and ideals that will accompany all of humanity on its expansion into space.