Commentary  The precursor to an African space agency

How policy education can assist aspirant space nations

The International Astronautical Congress, the annual premier conference of space enthusiasts, students, and professionals, will be held in October in the African region for the first time in the event’s 60 plus year history. In light of this occasion, increasing calls are being made for the establishment of an African space agency. While I do support the creation of space agencies in developing countries, such as the Nigerian Space Agency (NASRDA) and the newly established South African National Space Agency (SANSA), I do not believe that Africa is ready for a regional space agency. Other regional co-operative initiatives should be considered first to fully expose African countries to the benefits of Space Science and Technology (SST).
At the core of the topic of space, there are two basic tenets that have stood the test of time. Firstly, to be a “space capable” nation, a country should havewhat some would characterize as superior scientific and technological prowess. Secondly, this designation brings pride and prestige to nations.
But, to get to this stage is no easy task, no less because of the highly political nature of space engagement.
African countries would not be the only countries facing challenges entering the SST arena. During the 2009 Governance of National Space Activities in the Evolving European Framework Workshop in Budapest, major space powers told smaller countries that certain space activity should be left to established players. But, this notion has not deterred nonclassical actors from pursuing their visions. These nations realize that they will have to be more creative in making their space goals a reality.
With the increasing awareness of the tangible benefits of SST, and with thought to avoiding some of the political barriers to entry, the focus for African countries should be on translation of space applications into usable ideas at the ground level for sustainable development. Such a proposal is in line with the 1999 Vienna Declaration on Space and Human Development as adopted at the Third United Nations Conference on the Exploration and Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (UNISPACE III).  The job now is to identify the mechanisms needed to actually implement those resolutions and recommendations, first for the benefit of the states and then for the benefit of the region.
While firmly noting the complexities of exporting case studies from experiences that may not serve as suitable models in the African context, it is clear that there are no shortages of “initiatives” in and for Africa. Unfortunately, poor policy implementation prevents progression of good initiatives into tangible benefits and citizen’s apathy and loss of confidence prevents leaders from being held accountable. The importance of clearly articulating coherent policy with detailed implementation plans and appropriate performance indicators and metrics cannot be overstated. To this end, baseline SST policy considerations could be a substantial element of the new space law curriculum proposed for all the UN affiliated Regional Centers for Space Science and Technology Education, including the locations in Morocco and Nigeria.  As the curriculum is currently in the drafting stage by an appointed “group of educators”, such an inclusion is achievable and more will be gained from this integration of law with SST policy.
This initiative for the African Regional Centers could foster development of strong national space interests and capabilities as well as provide them with a better understanding of the practical benefits of space science and technology. This capacity will be necessary before the establishment of a regional initiative like the proposed African Space Agency so that contributions from all interested African countries can be meaningful towards the goal of sustainable development of the region. This will increase the confidence of the wealthier African states that they will not just be carrying the poorer States along and also ensure that the smaller states have a voice in regional space policy, despite their technological capacity.
I believe that through policy education and the increased promotion of space science and technology in Africa, there can be a new hope for the emergence of an African voice, at least in space related matters.
Timiebi Aganaba is currently a Master’s student in the Air and Space Law Institute of McGill.