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22 October 2014 09:51 (South Africa)
Opinionista Scott Firsing

Space, Brics' next frontier

  • Scott Firsing
One of the biggest perceived threats to the US is “satellite diplomacy”. If it is not careful, the friendly relationship between the Brics will blast off into space, leaving America behind.

While some of Nasa’s old equipment falls back to earth, the Brics (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) are doing just the opposite, by launching massive technologically advanced hunks of titanium into earth’s orbit.  Ever since Wan Hu, China has been aiming for space and it’s a frontier that it has finally conquered.

On 29 September 2011, China successfully launched its first space lab module into orbit in an impressive nighttime display. The unmanned Tiapong blasted off on a Chinese Long March 2F rocket at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in northwest China. The growing economic giant wants to put a man on the moon by 2030. They already put their first citizen in space in 2003 and completed their first space walk in late 2008, when three Chinese astronauts released a small satellite.

China’s space capability is high. And more importantly, they have the capital and the ambition to push it higher. Not only is there political will, there appears to be an endless amount of young, well educated citizens who are scientifically minded and have a passion to become taikonauts.

China hasn’t been shy to cooperate with other countries. They have been implementing a 2010-2012 China-Russia Space Cooperation Outline with its northern neighbour. This relationship will likely continue to strengthen in the fields of satellite navigation, joint deep space research, moon exploration and manned space missions.

Russia is seen as a space expert like the United States. It has been exploiting private space business opportunities, but they have also been assisting various countries in expanding their space programs including, notably, South Africa.

Russia assisted South Africa in launching its first earth orbiting satellite Sumbandila into space in September 2009. The microsatellite was launched from Kazakhstan aboard a Russian Soyuz rocket.

Another country involved with a launch from Kazakhstan aboard a Russian Soyuz rocket is Brazil. Three and half years prior to South Africa’s launch, Marco Pontes became the first Brazilian in space. Pontes, an astronaut for the Brazilian Space Agency (AEB), lived and worked on the space station for eight days before returning to Earth.

Both Brazil and South Africa want to become autonomous in space launches like their Brics counterparts Russia, China and India.

India’s space program, although modest compared to the US and Russia, is 46 years old. In September 2009, it launched seven satellites in a single mission from its Sriharikota space centre, off of its east coast. In January the following year, the Indian Space Research Organisation announced that its first manned mission to space would be in 2016. India, like China also plans a mission in 2030, but they want to go to the red planet, Mars.

And the United States of America?

The US government, but Nasa in particular, has and will continue to cooperate with some of the Brics. For example, Nasa and India signed an agreement in February 2008 establishing the terms for future cooperation between the two agencies in the exploration and use of outer space for peaceful purposes.

Since US President Barack Obama has been in office, he has challenged the American space agency to begin planning for human missions to an asteroid and Mars. Meanwhile the shuttle program has been officially retired. Nasa finds itself without a manned spaceflight capability until Constellation is completed, but that’s not going to be sooner than 2015. Nevertheless, Nasa recently unveiled (14 September) its design for the giant new rocket, the Space Launch System, for US Deep Space Missions. However, two US senators flatly accused the White House of trying to sabotage the nation's human spaceflight program after leaked Nasa documents said a congressionally mandated heavy-lift rocket, crew capsule and associated infrastructure could cost nearly US$63 billion in the next 13 years.

Money is a big concern for the US government for obvious reasons. Therefore, it is likely that Nasa will begin to approach the private sector for sending American astronauts to low-earth orbit and the international space station. Whether it will be American or Brics companies is uncertain.

US-China space cooperation, like Nasa funding, is also a touchy subject. Many US lawmakers have objected strongly to space cooperation with the Asian giant. They are worried about how opaque their space program is. However, China’s space technology is young compared to the US and Russia, but like its economy, it will grow in leaps and bounds.

One of the biggest perceived threats to America as a whole is a term I coined, satellite diplomacy. Since the launch of South Africa’s satellite with Russia’s help, South Africa-Russia relations have been expanding at an exponential rate. In 2010, South African President Jacob Zuma met with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in Russia where space cooperation was discussed. The two signed memorandums of understanding between the South African Space Agency and the Russian Federal Space Agency on cooperation in earth observation.

On the same day as China’s launch, 29 September, Russian natural resources and ecology minister Yuri Trutnev met with South Africa international relations and cooperation minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane. It was reported that trade between the two countries has increased by 6.42% in 2009, from US$484 million to US$517 million and will continue to grow. Moreover, cooperation has diversified to a variety of areas such as minerals, energy, space and raw materials, gold and diamonds.

If the US is not careful, the friendly relationship between Brics will become even friendlier. This will diversify into a number of other economic fields, which has begun already.

History has shown that this cooperation will eventually turn into increased political and military cooperation. And America simply cannot afford not to be involved if it wants to remain on top.

To the US government, lawmakers and American space related companies; please get spending, do your research and building, and start your long term planning. This is a necessity if you still want to be the “space” leader when we reach the mid 21st century. DM


  • Scott Firsing
scott-firsig-for-iM.jpg

Dr Scott Firsing, an American and permanent resident of South Africa is an Adjunct Research Fellow at Monash University, South Africa where he previously served as a Senior Lecturer and Head of the International Studies Department.
He is also a current research fellow at the Institute of Global Dialogue based at UNISA.

Scott's other current appointments include Director of the North American International School (NAIS) in Pretoria and Director of Public Engagement at the Aerospace Leadership Academy. The founder of the African NGO Young People in International Affairs, Scott is a former employee of the United Nations, Department for Disarmament Affairs, and a former Bradlow Fellow at the South African Institute of International Affairs (SAIIA).


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