Korea took the first step to establish its own equivalent to the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
A special bill to create the Korea Aerospace Administration passed in the parliamentary science and judiciary committees Monday and in the National Assembly plenary session Tuesday.
The bill's approval came nine months after the government submitted it to the National Assembly in April last year. It is fortunate that it passed, albeit belatedly.
The KASA will operate under the Ministry of Science and ICT and be overseen by the president's science advisory committee. Two existing space-related institutes -- the Korean Aerospace Research Institute and the Korea Astronomy and Space Science Institute -- will be incorporated into the new agency.
The incorporation resolves the issue of whether to allow the agency a research and development function. The ruling People Power Party has argued that the KASA should be responsible for a wide scope of R&D, while the main opposition Democratic Party of Korea has argued that the KASA's role can overlapp with existing agencies. Both institutes will continue to do research and development after being incorporated into the KASA.
Where to locate the KASA was another bone of contention involving regional political interests. Sacheon in South Gyeongsang Province and Daejeon competed as candidates to host the agency. It will be established in Sacheon around May or June.
The processing of the bill was protracted over issues unrelated to the competitiveness of Korea’s space industries. However, competition for space exploration intensified outside Korea. Japan, Russia and India launched robotic probes to the moon. China's lunar probe returned with samples of rocks and soil.
The US is opening a new age of space under the leadership of private companies such as SpaceX and Amazon.
Starlink's satellite internet service turned out to be useful during the Russia-Ukraine war, which degraded or destroyed internet and communication networks.
Korea made efforts to catch up with leading nations of the space age. The third launch of the Nuri rocket from the Naro Space Center in Goheung, South Jeolla Province, in May last year was successfully completed. The nation developed the space launch vehicle on its own. The successful launch made Korea the seventh country to possess both satellite and space vehicle technologies.
In August, 2022, the nation successfully launched its first unmanned lunar orbiter, dubbed "Danuri," developed by Korea Aerospace Research Institute.
But Korea has a long way to go. It is still far behind advanced countries in the field of aerospace.
India established its aerospace agency in 1969, China in 1993 and Japan in 2003. Korea is in a situation where it must try to follow them closely. Nine months went by before the bill passed in the standing committee. Such delays must be avoided.
The only way to catch up to the leading countries is through innovation. Both the public and private sectors must be united to speed up this process. Aerospace-related companies are located in Sacheon. The KASA must recognize and support them as innovation partners.
The first thing to do is to lower the costs of launching space vehicles, among other tasks. It would be hard to raise the competitiveness of aerospace industries if a launch is prohibitively expensive.
The KASA will have to do extensive work, including formulating and coordinating aerospace policies, securing important space technologies, developing and utilizing space resources, and developing and promoting aerospace industries. Naturally, it should research astronomical phenomena and space, and it must even protect people from dangers caused by changes in the space environment.
Even after the KASA act takes effect, it will have to resolve issues regarding the enforcement of decrees and regulations. Organizing the new agency efficiently and recruiting excellent personnel are never an easy job.
Aerospace is a strategically important field that has a great ripple effect on diverse industries. The government must prepare thoroughly to ensure that the KASA will function properly as the nation's command center for aerospace technology. It must build up related infrastructure, and keep up investment and support.