The space race has never been solely about planting a nation’s flag on an object in space or benign scientific discovery.
It has always had a military and strategic dimension.
For nearly half a century, as the United States and Russia competed for dominance over Earth, both superpowers spent billions exploring space weapons, just like death jets fired from rocket ships.
Although the Cold War ended about 30 years ago, some fear that a new space race may be a sign that the world is also ready to take part in another arms race.
This time, however, it will not be limited to global superpowers.
“The reality is that the militarization – and, if you will, democratization – of space technologies means more and more participants are coming to the area,” said Brett Biddington, a Canberra-based space policy expert.
Today, the pool of countries that use huge amounts of cash to pay off their claims in the clouds above is growing larger.
China, India and Japan have already begun to demonstrate both the ambition and technological skills needed to be considered space powers.
This week, South Korea revealed that it also wants to be taken seriously on the global stage and refuses to be left in the race for space.
The launch of the shiny South Korean space rocket Nuri, the first fully home-made space launch vehicle, was to be a moment of national pride for the country.
The result was mixed. The rocket was successfully launched, but the dummy satellite it carried did not reach orbit.
Still, South Korean President Moon Jae-in promised a “Korea era” and said his country’s ambitions would not be thwarted.
How South Korea ‘flew under the radar’
While neighboring North Korea is better known for its nuclear weapons, South Korea has quietly been working to develop its own military capabilities.
In recent years, the country has increased its military spending and earmarked approximately $ 85 billion ($ 113 billion) in funding for arms improvements between 2020 and 2024.
But Dr. Biddington said the launch of the Nuri was an important milestone for South Korea because “launching a launch vehicle is a really difficult thing”.
“South Korea has a long and quite distinguished space heritage. It set up its space agency in 1989,” he said.
“I feel that it has flown under the radar, so to speak.
Dr. Biddington suggested that the launch was also a sign that South Korea now wants to assert its independence not only from its rivals but also from its allies.
“It’s also a message to the neighbors in Korea, perhaps especially North Korea,” he said.
“But it is also a comment to Japan and to China and to Russia and even the United States that Korea has quietly and patiently developed capabilities that allow it to stand on its own two feet when it comes to its interest in outer space.”
The space race and the arms race
Nuri’s launch comes at a time of heightened tensions in the region with a full-blown arms race in action.
The Koreans have become accustomed to projectiles being fired from their peninsula.
On Thursday, North Korea unveiled its new Submarine Launched Ballistic Missile (SLBM) just one month after South Korea unveiled its own version.
But it is not limited to the peninsula, with reports this week suggesting that China had tested a new ‘hypersonic missile’ that uses space rocket technology to create a potentially destructive weapon.
China rejected the reports, but Chang Young-keun, a missile expert at Korea Aerospace University, said it was almost certain what China’s inmates were a weapon.
“They were definitely testing a hypersonic vehicle, not a space rocket,” he said.
Against such a background, South Korea does not hide the fact that its space program has major military consequences.
“As we improve our civilian space technology, we also improve our military space technology,” Professor Chang said.
This week, the country welcomed hundreds of international delegates to its major arms fair, Aerospace and Defense Expo or ADEX.
It was crammed with theaters: fighter jets maneuvering overhead, drawing giant love hearts in the sky with their accessories, while delegates downstairs slammed down on smoked Texas grills and burgers.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in paid his own surprise visit to the event behind a fighter jet, urging the country to redouble its efforts to become a global defense leader.
“The goal of building a strong defense force is always to promote peace,” he told the crowd.
The advantage of a spaceflight
South Korea may not yet have its own dedicated ‘Space Force’ like the United States, but it has made it clear that space is crucial to its defense.
However, there are also legitimate civilian and scientific motives for its ambitions for a space industry.
South Korea’s capacity to launch its own missiles is a critical step towards achieving goals such as a national 6G mobile network and a sovereign radio navigation system such as the US GPS.
Lee Hyung-mok, professor emeritus of physics and astronomy at Korea National University, said he and his scientists were excited about the possibility of using these rockets.
He said they will help transport observation equipment outside the Earth’s atmosphere so they can better understand our universe.
Such a discovery does not come cheap, and Professor Lee said he recognizes that space travel can be expensive.
He also said he knows that national defense is often an easier way to get the government to loosen the public purse.
“Maybe the government decided to spend a huge amount of money because of the military significance,” he said.
Although competition may encourage further investment in space, he is still concerned about where it may lead.
“What I really hope is that instead of competing too much, it’s better to work together,” he said.
“So in many areas, they are trying to work together.”
But he said in Asia that there is still no one in that “mood”.