South Korea needs to join the “inner club of global space powerhouses” by developing unmatched space technology and becoming an attractive partner within the club, according to the first vice minister of the Ministry of Science and ICT.
“There are areas where we need to stand on our own in terms of technology. But we can’t do everything by ourselves. For instance, we can’t do space exploration alone,” said First Vice Minister Oh Tae-seog in a recent interview with The Korea Herald.
Noting that global space leaders have already collected unimaginable amounts of data about space since the 1960s, Oh acknowledged that no matter how much more Korea decides to spend on the space sector, it would be unrealistic to expect spending to match the absolute funding size in the US or other space leaders.
“In terms of space exploration, there is competition among countries, but right now it’s more about ‘Let’s cooperate.’ If we want to join combined efforts, there must be something we are good at. Think about a study group -- a new member can join the group if the person can contribute something. The same logic applies for countries,” said Oh.
In May 2021, Korea became the 10th country to sign the Artemis Accords -- a set of principles on responsible moon exploration. The Artemis Accords are named after the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Artemis program, which aims to reestablish human presence on the moon before 2030.
The Korean government has handed over the list of programs that it hopes to work on with NASA, including Artemis. The US space agency is currently reviewing the list, according to Oh.
The first vice minister pointed to the case of Canada while underscoring the importance of becoming a member of the global space club.
“We have to do the things that others are not doing. For example, Canada has been included in international space station projects because of its robotic arm technology,” he said.
Canada has played an integral role in global space exploration since the early 1980s, as the country’s signature robotic “Canadarm” was part of NASA’s Columbia space shuttle. Canada has continuously developed its robotic arm technology for assembling stations and transporting supplies and equipment in space, becoming a world leader in the field.
Strong space push
Regarding the establishment of a new public space agency tentatively named the Korea Space and Aeronautics Administration, Oh said that it shows the government’s full-fledged dedication to nurturing the country’s space ecosystem.
“When the government dissects the budget, there is competition among public bodies. Space is important. Nuclear power is important. In this regard, the establishment of an agency solely dedicated for (space and aeronautics) can put more emphasis on space,” he said.
The first vice minister also noted that with the establishment of the KSAA, President Yoon Suk Yeol now heads the National Space Committee, a step up from when the prime minister chaired the NSC.
“The support measures for science technology, especially space, can vary a lot depending on how much interest the top decision maker has. With the president chairing the NSC, it has laid the foundation for pushing space policies more strongly,” said Oh.
As the current administration has set milestone goals of landing on the moon and Mars by 2032 and 2045, respectively, Oh explained that the government will provide support measures for fostering space talent.
According to the Science Ministry, the government will designate research centers focused on space technology to advance the research environment at university laboratories. Starting next year, the government will offer 500 million won ($385,000) to two research centers and 200 million won to five research centers every year.
Oh said that the government is already in discussions with private sector firms on finding ways to reeducate workers already in the space industry, noting how the country’s homegrown Nuri rocket achieved success with over 300 firms taking part in the state-led project.
“Our space sector had been limited to developing launch vehicles and satellites. In terms of the space economy, launch vehicles account for less than 10 percent. So at this point, it’s important for us to create an ecosystem for the private sector to play its role in bolstering various areas of the space industry,” he said.