This year marks the 60th anniversary of humanity’s first exploration of space, when the cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin orbited the Earth for approximately 48 minutes aboard the Vostok 1 spacecraft. In the years since, going to space has become part of humanity’s day to day reality. But that reality isn’t the same for everyone; it’s dominated by the United States, Russia, China, and Japan. For decades now, Latin American countries have been battling for their own slice of the space cake. Their latest attempt is the creation of the Latin American and Caribbean Space Agency, or ALCE.
In October 2020, Mexico and Argentina agreed to lead the creation of ALCE, a regional space agency that will seek to unite resources—budgetary, human, and technological. Bolivia, Ecuador, El Salvador, and Paraguay will also be involved, and although Colombia and Peru won’t be actively participating for the moment, they will be part of the group as observers. The initiative, born of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States, was first proposed in 2006 at the America’s Space Summit, but now is finally underway, and it hopes to have its first satellite in orbit by the end of 2021, or 2022 at the latest.
Getting satellites into space might seem like a small goal when compared with SpaceX ferrying astronauts, NASA’s Perseverance missions to Mars, and China’s Chang’e-5 mission to the Moon. But satellites are central to many technological commodities in the 21st century, such as telecommunications, weather and environmental monitoring, and GPS navigation systems, not to mention all the scientific developments that come out of space research. In 2019, the satellite industry’s worldwide revenue amounted to $271 billion, making up 74 percent of the space economy. That includes not only satellite services but also satellite manufacturing, the launch industry, and ground equipment manufacturing. Meanwhile, the Union of Concerned Scientists reported in January that of the 3,372 satellites orbiting Earth, only 51 were owned by a Latin American country—all Mexico, Argentina, Brazil, Ecuador, Colombia, or Chile—and most had a primary purpose of communications or Earth observation. Yet Colombia, Brazil, Venezuela, and Ecuador are closer to the equator—a geographically strategic point for satellite launching— than the U.S. Space Coast from which some of the largest rocket companies launch their satellites and spaceships.
Latin America is no stranger to space, as Argentina, Peru, Brazil, Mexico, Uruguay, and Bolivia have national space agencies, and Argentina and Brazil have even built space launch sites. But until the end of the last century, Latin America’s only successful space projects were those conducted with the Soviet Union or the United States. Even now, other countries still depend on the technical expertise and equipment of the U.S., Russia, and Europe. For example, when Mexico needed to coordinate the response operations to the passage of Hurricane Eta through the south of the country in November 2020, it needed to buy images from the European Space Agency.
Taking this into consideration, ALCE’s creation means the opportunity for technological independence in the region, and the chance to develop technology-based industries that could transform national economies. Some of the agency’s longer-term goals include launching satellites for satellite imagery, increasing investment in space research, and the creation of projects to boost satellite internet. However, they are also setting their eyes on a more ambitious endeavor: to participate in major space projects such as humanity’s return to the Moon in 2024 and the human missions to Mars. However, although these ambitious goals are exciting, many things have to happen before the region can be a strong player in these projects.
None of the participating countries could afford to compete individually in a global space race that has been getting more and more expensive, especially with the participation of private investors. And as the Mexican chancellor of foreign affairs, Marcelo Ebrard, has pointed out, most Latin American nations will need to invest significantly in scientific and technological advancement down on Earth to be competitive in space. And if these countries lag behind and don’t get involved in the space race, they will “have more and more disadvantages in scientific and technological matters that translates into weakness and translates into inability to solve the problems we have in terms of social welfare and other issues,” Ebrard said. Still, there are many steps between this starting place and being able to compete and equitably collaborate with its biggest players.
First off, there’s money in itself. Even if the ALCE countries decided to combine all of their independent space research budgets toward one centralized agency—together, the funds allocated to space research from Mexico, Argentina and Bolivia amount to approximately $95.5 million, of which $81.5 million belongs to Argentina—how much can be accomplished when they are competing with a space industry that received $20 billion of government investment worldwide in 2019?
Moreover, budgets in Latin America are on a downward trend. In 2018 the Ecuadorian Space Institute was shut down as part of the government’s economic measures, and Mexico continues reducing its investments in science and space research. Still, this doesn’t seem to be a primary concern for Efraín Guadarrama, director of the Regional Organizations and Mechanisms of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Mexico, who says that there is no need for big budgets, only political will.
Yet will is another issue in itself. ALCE faces internal diplomatic challenges. The participating countries still need to define how they will collaborate, how much money and resources each will contribute, where the main headquarters will be, which exchange currency will be used, and many other details. Mario Arreola, director of dissemination of space science and technology at the Mexican Space Agency, said, “I think it could take about three years, if not more” until the agency is fully formed.
Furthermore, as Guillermo Rus, the former vice president of ARSAT, a telecommunications company owned by the Argentine government, pointed out in 2016, some countries are further along in technological advancement than others, and it’s difficult to work together when technical, political, and institutional capacities are lacking.*
Finally, 21st century space exploration is distinguished by the involvement of private investors. If ALCE wants to be more than just the combination of government national budgets, it—and the participating countries on an individual basis—needs to consider the role of the private sector. There are already some space technology companies in the region that show the benefits of this approach. The Argentinian company Skyloom seeks to deploy a network of satellites with laser links to Earth to transmit the data obtained by them in low orbit, and the Puerto Rican company Instarz designed a fully equipped, self-assembling, and self-sustaining lunar ecosystem called Remnant that could allow astronauts to live and work on the moon for at least a year.
Humans are driven by our fascination with the universe but also our need to have a better life on Earth. As Arreola noted, countries that have space agencies and access to space are also countries that have technological development and innovation. “Everything that is bought to send to space is bought on Earth, all the people who work in the field of space work on Earth.”
ALCE’s take-off will mean more than participating in the exploration of Mars and the moon. It will be an assertion of the region’s scientific and cultural identity. With that, it is poised to establish a sustainable space-research economy that could make Latin America a strong contender in the space race, bringing valuable contributions not only to the region but to the world.
*Correction, May 14, 2021: Due to an editing error, this article originally misstated where Guillermo Rus, the former vice president of ARSAT, made a point about the challenges of Latin American space cooperation. It did not happen at the International Astronautical Congress of 2016 in Mexico.