Turkey has set its eyes on the stars. Its President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has signed an executive order to form the country’s first official space agency. Scientists have welcomed the move and hope it will provide jobs and reduce brain drain even as they wonder about the feasibility of its ambitious goals.
The agency is expected to develop technologies for rocket launches and space exploration, as well as to coordinate the space-related activities of the country’s other space-research centres, according to the order, signed on 13 December.
It’s not yet clear how much of the national budget the new organisation will receive, or when it will be up and running.
“The judicial details of the agency are still being sorted out,” said Mustafa Varank, the Minister of Industry and Technology, during a speech at the National Space Workshop held in Gebze, Turkey, on 19 January. He added that this is a historic moment for a country whose flag pictures the Moon and a star.
Members of Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party have mentioned the idea of establishing a space agency several times since coming to power in 2002-2003. But it remained a vague and recurring campaign promise until 2016, when it was first officially included in the government’s action plan.
The executive order — a new power that Erdoğan gained after elections in 2018 — now makes it official.
The Turkish government already funds several space-research centres, two of which will now see their funding cut as money is redirected to the new organisation.
The Space Technologies Research Institute of Turkey (TÜBİTAK–UZAY) and the Directorate General of Civil Aviation, a public body that regulates civil aerospace, will both see 20% of their budgets redirected to the agency. On the basis of their official 2019 budgets, this amount alone will add up to almost 30 million Turkish Liras (US$5.7 million).
The new agency will coordinate these institutions’ space work, as well as that of Turkish Aerospace Industries; Roketsan, a major Turkish rocket producer; and TÜRKSAT — a semi-private satellite organization, the order says.
Turkish scientists have greeted the news with cautious optimism.
“Space research requires the contribution of many nations and this is a great opportunity for Turkey,” says Betül Kacar, a Turkish astrobiologist at the University of Arizona in Tucson. “This can be an impetus for Turkey to invest in fields that have the potential to guide the future of global economic development, such as space-based solar power and asteroid-mining technologies.”
Zafer Emecan, the director of Kozmik Anafor, a popular astronomy website in Turkey, is also optimistic. He notes that Turkey’s proximity to the equator and its many flatlands might make it an economical alternative to current international launch sites. Hosting launches by other nations, he says, could provide the agency with an extra source of revenue.
‘Hope for the future’
And some scientists hope the agency will help to keep researchers in the country, which has faced substantial brain drain.
“There are considerable numbers of students who are very much into space and science in Turkey,” says Umut Yıldız, an astrophysicist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. “A well-established space programme might be just what the young generation needs to have hope for the future.”
Emecan thinks the agency could generate much-needed jobs for graduates of aerospace engineering and astronomy, who, he says, currently have few job options in Turkey.
But if the agency is to thrive, Turkey will need even more astronomers, which could pose a challenge given the government’s poor record on academic freedom and historical brain drain.
“The number of Turkish people who have a professional career in space science is quite low,” says Yıldız. But, he adds, the numbers could increase if the agency sets exciting goals and funds research consistently. “The young generation, who are already interested in space, can easily be captured with the right initiatives.”
Another source of optimism is a government initiative announced on 14 November that aims to bring scientists back to Turkey by providing funds of up to $4,500 per person a month for a period of two-three years to help them relocate and start up a lab.
The space agency’s funding is to come from an as-yet undisclosed percentage of the national budget, donations from third parties and other income, such as that derived from consultation and patents, the order says.
Turkey’s contributions to global space science will probably be modest given overall funding levels. The science ministry’s entire budget for 2019 is around $400 million, a fraction of the $20.7 billion the US government appropriated for NASA in 2018.
But the Turkish government hopes the agency will also help to generate local economic and social benefits.
“Aerospace technologies intersect with many subsectors and they encompass various important technologies,” said Varank. “The expertise we will gain in this field will be a feedback loop for those subsectors and contribute to the overall socioeconomic development.”
Other countries in the Middle East that have space programmes with launch capacity are Iran and Israel, both of which also use this capability for military purposes. “Turkey has proven its technological capabilities in the defence industry,” said Varank. “Space technologies will allow us to expand in a novel and unique dimension.”