Two weeks ago, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov traveled to Pyongyang and made an offer. The Russian space program would launch North Korean communication satellites and assist the North Korean space program. The offer by the Russians comes after the secretive state has conducted a series of missile tests and in April launched a rocket. Pyongyang stated the rocket was designed to send a satellite into orbit, but Western national worry the launch was nothing more than a test for a long-range missile test. The Russian offer was a repeat of one from the Americans in 2000, and designed to smoke out the true intentions of this secretive nation.
It is of course possible that the North Korean program is driven by both military and commercial considerations. In this case, unlikely. But it is of course possible. But whatever the motivation, the distrust towards the true intentions of the DPRK is but the latest reminder that the chief political basis for national space programs has long been national strategic concerns, and not the marketplace.
For me, this was brought home during a 2000 meeting in what was then the Old Executive Office Building, next to the White House. Present were all sorts of agency officials to listen to my briefing on the commercial objectives of MirCorp, my company that leased the Russian space station Mir.
I spoke of our success at funding the production line for Russia’s Soyuz and Progress launch vehicles—something desperately needed by Russia to maintain it’s commitment for both the Mir and ISS. A mid-level official at the far end of the huge conference table raised his hand. “I have a problem with you,” he bluntly said. “There is no such thing as a launch vehicle. There are only missiles. And your company is funding Russia’s missiles.” Maybe yes, maybe no. But the military origins of the Space Age began with the first V-2 rockets that rose from the slave-factories of the Nazi-era Peenemunde. It is a beginning we have been unable to shake.
The real or imagined distinction between a military and a civil space sector continues to bedevil policy officials. Look at Iran—they too have a launch program, and their launch of the Omid satellite this past February allowed them to become only the ninth nation to launch domestic satellites. So too with Israel. But who will say that Israel and Iran would fund their space program for only scientific results, and not strategic? Not I. And now South Korea is pursuing a domestic geostationary big bird, and India and Japan are spending significant amounts of funding for civil and commercial space efforts. Good? Sure. Troubling…yes as well.
The founders of the world’s manned exploration programs suffered through this dilemma. Russia’s Sergei Korolev, German’s Warner von Braun (who launched the American space program) and China’s Tsien Hsue-shen (who interviewed Warner von Braun, and developed our own ICBM program before being deported to Mainland China). Each of these men lived to see the success of their manned programs; yet each played the devils game in working closely with their respective military officials to secure the necessary funding for the missiles/launch vehicles.
It may seem like a problem far removed from the commercial space sector, but like it or not, the recent actions taken by North Korea reinforces the fears of some towards a legitimate commercial space market. The spectacle of new entrants into the spacefaring club will make it more difficult for commercial space entrepreneurs already battling restrictive ITAR regulations, fears by certain government officials of a true international robust market for launch vehicles and a concern over a legitimately strong private sector in space.