The world has been upended by the COVID-19 pandemic. To combat the spread of the virus, global cooperation and partnerships are of paramount importance. But we should be looking further afield for solutions, to a place beyond our planet but increasingly within reach of human collaboration.
Space technology is one area where governments and the private sector can join forces to defeat this infectious disease. In fact, public-private partnerships (PPPs) in space technology is nothing new. As early as 1962, the United States encouraged private sector participation in the space sector and its technology and it continues to have the most seasoned and active space program, contributing 58% of the $70.9 billion global government spending on space in 2018.
Most space-related PPPs are focused on sharing risk and innovation with the private sector. The current emphasis is to leverage commercial sector innovation and agility.
For example, under NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, SpaceX launched the Crew Dragon, the first private sector owned, built, tested, and operated American manned spacecraft on its way to the International Space Station. The historic event demonstrates NASA’s continued commitment to invest and engage with private companies through PPPs.
The benefits are obvious. Space sector partnerships provide efficiency gains by tapping into private sector expertise, reduce lifecycle costs by attaining value for money, and allocate risks to the sector best suited to manage it.
For the private sector, it means opportunities for return on investments, potential competitive and market advantage, and additional revenue streams from unique government assets.
Beyond these, partnerships in the space industry deliver two additional advantages. Transfer of technology—both from the government space agency to the private sector (“Spin-Offs”) and vice versa (“Spin-Ins”)—and policy alignments, whether to stimulate a country’s commercial space sector or to reach development goals, such as eliminating the digital divide or furthering global health objectives.
A recent study, covering 437 articles from 1981 to 2017, identified four key space technologies that have applications to global health: remote sensing; Global Navigation Satellite Systems; satellite communications; and human spaceflight.
In practice, PPPs that utilized space technologies have proven effective in responding to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Republic of Korea has collaborated with the private sector in increasing production and creating applications that optimize and coordinate the distribution of personal protective equipment (PPE) using satellite navigation and communication technologies. Through PPE tracker apps, citizens are provided with accurate information on the availability and location of such equipment, empowering them to make informed decisions, avoid crowds, and prevent panic buying.
In the People’s Republic of China, satellite technologies, such as the local BeiDou Navigation Satellite System, have been crucial assets in tracking patients’ positions (e.g., Wuhan Mini Neighborhood App), monitoring cargo transport (e.g., White Rhino Auto’s self-driving delivery vehicle), and guiding drones for large-scale disinfection missions (Qianxun Spatial Intelligence).
While these innovative space applications are exciting, especially the creative PPPs in response to the COVID-19 outbreak, they are not without challenges.
Developing countries without a workforce with solid numeracy and digital literacy, proper infrastructure, and an enabling regulatory environment, face limited prospects in adopting the opportunities that space technologies present. The pandemic has reinforced the importance of digital readiness for countries to respond effectively and inclusively, as well as maintain societal resilience and business continuity amidst the crisis.
The nature of space development—high cost, high risk, and long lead-times—also intensify the difficulty of establishing national space programs. PPPs do not eliminate these challenges, rather, they provide an avenue for better risk management by making use of the best qualities offered by each participant.
PPPs and space technology development should always be tailored to the local context. In India, for example, private participation in the space sector remains limited to supplying parts and components for satellites and launch vehicles manufactured by the Indian Space Research Organization. Enabling the private sector to independently innovate and grow remains a challenging prerequisite to fully capitalize on the benefits of PPPs.
Recognizing these limitations, two international organizations exist to support and enhance spacefaring initiatives and cooperation in the region: the Asia-Pacific Regional Space Agency Forum established in 1993 and the Asia-Pacific Space Cooperation Organization founded in 2008.
Both organizations promote cross-sectoral and inter-governmental cooperation and resource sharing in space science, space technology, and space application, as drivers of socio-economic development in Asia and the Pacific.
ADB has also been supportive in implementing effective space technology applications in many projects since the 1990s. Recent space technology ventures include the $50 million financing of the Kacific1 satellite, which will deliver internet connectivity to remote and rural communities in the Asia and Pacific region. Another initiative is the Spatial Data Analysis Explorer (SPADE), an interactive web-based cloud platform that contains various geospatial data which can be used for project preparation, design and monitoring.
Now, more than ever, the space-Earth frontier should no longer be exclusive to a narrow niche of institutions and space-faring countries. Even in normal times, space technologies have offered innovative solutions to connectivity, inclusivity, and resilience challenges, and have supported healthcare delivery in the most extreme situations.
The pandemic has highlighted the importance of these technologies in managing the crisis and putting countries back on track to sustainable development. Public-private partnerships, coupled with global cooperation, have the capacity to accelerate this initiative and bring countries one step closer to exploring the final frontier.