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Geopolitics and the economics of space

Aspenia Talks
Rome, 20/09/2016, Talk-debate
Press clippings
Audio-video clips

The starting premise of discussions at this talk-debate session was that developments in the space sector are reshaping geopolitical ties and generating new economic opportunities – two closely interwoven aspects. It was observed that geopolitics was what primarily fueled the innovation race during the Cold War, as embodied by the launch of Sputnik on October 4, 1957, ushering in a Space Age which saw space governing political relations between the United States and the Soviet Union, so much so that future US president Lyndon Johnson was prompted to describe the Sputnik launch as “a new Pearl Harbor”.

The economic dimension, which today has assumed increasingly greater significance, was seen as embodied by a second date: August 15, 2016, the day when China – in the age of WikiLeaks and cyber espionage – launched the first quantum communications satellite, aimed at making transmissions unhackable. In this regard, it was noted that applications and services devised within the course of space innovation will become available to an ever-wider customer and user base. Indeed, there is talk of the emergence of a “new space sector”, of an industry in transition, which is seeing significant investment pour in from the major IT players. There is a profound interplay between space Innovation on one hand and digital technologies and everyday applications, both present and future, as in the case of clouding.

It was remarked that while France is a European leader in space innovation and Germany is the country that invests the most, Italy has a space economy development plan which aims to make the country competitive in this field. Space innovation is a young sector for Italy (Telespazio was founded around sixty years ago), but it has nevertheless played and continues to play a leading role, and Italian industry has made and still makes an important contribution. It offers the entire range of allied products and skills, it has strategic infrastructure, it engages in international partnerships, it contributes to European Union programs such as Copernicus, and it has ample capacity to export to countries wishing to enter the sector, with 6 thousand employees and a turnover of 1.6 billion euro (which rises to 3 billion euro if the entire supply chain is taken into account).

The participants highlighted that the new commercialization of space has also led to a shift in relations between the public and private sectors, bringing with it long-term investment and development plans, in line with an ongoing cooperative yet at the same time competitive dynamic between states in their quest for technological superiority. Indeed, a fully-fledged space business is emerging rapidly, giving rise to opportunities for private investment, thus making it crucial to guarantee security through shared rules, a task incumbent on the United Nations, which is committed to involving developing countries in the space economy.

The UN project in question, UNISPACE +50, entails mapping out a sustainable space strategy. It was stressed that developing countries could draw numerous benefits from the initiative: a leading sector such as space innovation would provide a major input to new markets (on the strength of existing ones), and would have positive effects both on the economy of a given state and on the daily lives of its people. It was further noted that, more so than all other countries, China is the one that supports the United Nations’ space initiatives, demonstrating its strategic foresight in understanding the sector’s importance in the diplomatic, economic, and political spheres.

The Italian government was also described as being fully committed, exhibiting a strongly pro-European outlook on space strategies and ranking as the third largest contributor to the European Space Agency (ESA), with two missions currently underway, namely: Galileo and Copernicus. In Luxembourg, in December 2014, the Italian commitment was reaffirmed and will be brought to completion with the ESA Ministerial Conference to be held in Lucerne in December 2016, the next forum for bolstering policies on space and on international cooperation in the sector.