State of the African Space & Satellite Industry – a Chat With Prof. Peter Martinez, Secure World Foundation Director

Prof Peter Martinez is the 2020 winner of the Frank J. Malina Astronautics Medal and the first African to win the prestigious honour. Currently, the Secure World Foundation’s Executive Director, he has extensive experience in multilateral space diplomacy, space policy formulation, space regulation, capacity building in space science and technology, and workforce development. Prior to joining SWF, from 2011 – 2018, he chaired the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (UN COPUOS) Working Group on the Long-Term Sustainability of Outer Space Activities that negotiated a set of international consensus guidelines to promote the safety and sustainability of space operations.

In 2012 and 2013, he was South Africa’s representative on the United Nations Group of Government Experts on transparency and confidence-building measures for space activities. From 2010 – 2015 he was the Chairman of the South African Council for Space Affairs, the national regulatory authority for space activities in South Africa. He has presented guest lectures at several universities around the world. From 2014 – 2018 he was Professor of Space Studies at the University of Cape Town. He is a member of the International Academy of Astronautics, the International Institute of Space Law, and a Royal Astronomical Fellow. He has authored or co-authored over 200 publications on topics in space policy, space sustainability, astronomy, space research, space law and space policy.

Space in Africa had a chat recently with Prof Martinez on the African Space and Satellite Industry’s current state.

Let us start with the Space Studies Program at UCT. What role do you think this program plays in bridging the capacity development gap in the African Space Industry?

The Space Studies program at UCT was established to respond to a need for multidisciplinary training in space activities and space applications.  The program was designed to complement the existing technical training provided by other universities in satellite engineering, remote sensing applications, space physics, and so on. We realised a need for broad, multidisciplinary training for government officials and space professionals in the industry who needed to understand the “big picture” aspects of space studies. As such, the program covers a broad swathe of astrodynamics, space applications, space policy, space law and space security, and other areas. Students have come from a variety of countries in Africa and elsewhere to do this program. We think the program has helped build a cadre of space professionals with common training experience to pursue their space careers in Africa. We are very proud of SpaceLab graduates’ success, judging from their awards of prizes in international conferences and competitions and the number of students who have graduated with distinction. Since my departure from UCT to take up the Secure World Foundation’s Directorship, I have maintained my connections with the program and students. The COVID-19 pandemic and other issues have held up the recruitment of my successor. I hope the University appoints my successor soon.

Over 13,000 people currently work in the African Space Industry – both upstream and downstream. Most Africans working in the industry have been relying on overseas studies. Do you think this is a good model for the continent?

No, I don’t, which is precisely one reason we started this program at UCT. The reason why I got involved with the academic community was that, at that time, I was in a government institution. We were wrestling with how we would generate the necessary human capital to run a future national space program. We identified a need for multidisciplinary training, and initially, we thought of creating funding mechanisms to send South Africans to study abroad. However, when we looked at the costs involved, we realised that the available funding would only allow us to train a tiny fraction of the number of people we needed to train, and it will be much more cost-effective to “grow or own timber”. With the growing number of space experts on the continent and the growing reliability of online platforms as teaching tools, it is becoming easier to offer highly specialised training on the continent. Of course, there will always be benefit from Africans studying space subjects abroad, but we will get much higher throughput with programs on the continent. Having had the experience of running the program at UCT, I would advocate for African training programs to look at using ICTs to combine forces to expose students to the best talents at the various universities. From East to West Africa, the time zones span only three hours, so this is a geographical advantage that can be exploited for teaching and research collaborations.

How best can we bridge the knowledge and talent gap in the ecosystem?

As I mentioned, I think we need to be placing a lot more emphasis on developing training programs in Africa. Such programs could be set up to draw on many international space experts who are willing to share their knowledge and experiences to help train African students. Though face-to-face engagement is always best, virtual platforms can be a way to broaden the pool of international space experts who are willing to teach in African programs without having to travel. These types of engagements could be formalised through arrangements with international professional bodies in space subjects that many experts belong to as members. These bodies provide access to a wide pool of international talent in their membership for the African countries. For these international organisations, the benefits of such engagement would be to expand their membership into Africa.

Let us talk about the African Space Program: What do you see as the most pressing issues in the African Space Industry today?

If I had to choose just one issue, I would say that the government must support the industry actively and vigorously. Governments may produce space policy documents that refer to the importance of the national space industry. Still, such policy statements will not, in and of themselves, lead to direct investment in African space companies. Governments literally need to put their money where their mouth is to provide tangible support to promote space companies’ creation and nurture their development. There are several ways to do this, such as innovation grants, tax breaks for start-ups, promoting national companies at trade fairs and international conferences, and, most importantly, procuring these companies’ products and services to help them build product heritage that inspires confidence in potential investors and clients. Governments also need to create regulatory certainty and transparent and efficient processes for the authorisation and licensing of commercial space activities. This, too, helps to build confidence in investors and entrepreneurs.

The African Space Policy & Strategy was approved some years ago, while the African Space Agency is expected to commence operations anytime soon. What are your thoughts on Policy and Strategy? Do you think a continental space program is a way forward for the continent?

I have always been a proponent of enhanced intra-African cooperation, which is at the heart of the African Space Agency and the African Space Policy and Strategy that gave birth to the agency. But cooperation means that the parties must bring something to the table, and the resulting whole is greater than the individual parts. What concerns me about the African Space Agency rollout is that it may be putting the cart ahead of the horse in the sense that the space capabilities in Africa reside in the space agencies and industries of the individual countries, which are still in their infancy and have to be nurtured by their governments to become sustainable space ecosystems at the national level. So, the big challenge to operationalising the African space agency is to figure out how to harness these national-level capabilities in support of the continental-level mandate of the African Space Agency in a synergistic manner. The last thing we would want to see is the African Space Agency acting independently of the national actors.  If all the African space agency becomes is a sort of aggregator for the demand for space services that space actors from outside the continent fulfil, then it will have failed in its mission, in my view.  National-level government support for domestic space activities is critical for a continental space program’s long-term success.

It has always been a bit challenging to get African countries to work together. How do you think this problem can be addressed?

Yes, I agree that intra-African cooperation is a challenge. We see this in the space community with the anglophone – francophone divide in Africa. Discussions and cooperation programs tend to happen in silos, and attempts to bridge the divide are not always successful. One example is the African Leadership Conference on Space Science and Technology for Sustainable Development, or “the ALC” as it is often referred to. Despite the organisers’ efforts to balance the discussions by moving the conference around the continent, this biannual conference has tended to have an anglophone bias.

I would encourage a bottom-up approach of groups with common interests coming together to make things that all sides want to do and are willing to invest their resources of time, money, and effort because they all have a common interest. This is where business-to-business or academic partnerships have a role to play. The government’s role can be to provide a supportive regulatory regime and financial support to catalyse these interactions.

Let’s talk about your work with Secure World Foundation: Can you talk briefly about Secure World Foundation’s work in Africa? Furthermore, how the organisation is developing and promoting ideas and actions to achieve the secure, sustainable, and peaceful uses of outer space for African countries.

At the Secure World Foundation, we work with governments, international organisations, academia, and the private sector to promote the sustainable and peaceful uses of outer space to benefit all nations.  We do this in the African region to support African countries to engage purposefully in current ongoing discussions in multilateral fora such as the United Nations on topics such as space resources utilisation, space traffic management, and space situational awareness. Countries are discussing the road rules for future space activities, and African countries should be actively engaged in shaping these new rules. Also, African countries need to be more engaged in international space security discussions. These are issues of concern to the leading military space powers and all countries that are critically reliant on space, including African countries. SWF role is to provide objective, reliable information to African countries and then for them to form their own views and positions on these various matters.

Are there future projects from SWF we should be expecting in Africa?

We are working on several projects that are of interest to African countries. These include things such as helping countries think through the adoption of national space legislation and meeting their international treaty obligations under, for example, the Outer Space Treaty or the Registration Convention, or the implementation of the recently adopted UN COPUOS guidelines for space sustainability. For our francophone African colleagues, we are looking forward to the release of the French translation of the SWF Handbook for New Actors in Space, which provides a lot of the basic information on the regulation of national space activities and international space governance in general. I should also take this opportunity to mention that SWF will hold its 3rd Summit for Space Sustainability in June 2021. It will be a virtual event. Please keep an eye on our website for more details.