“Turkey Creates Its First Space Agency”

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The Story

“Turkey Creates Its First Space Agency”
by Çağrı Mert Bakırcı-Taylor
Nature, February 4, 2019

The Pitch

Turkey sets eyes on stars with its first space agency

The president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has decreed the county should set up a national space agency, but details remain sketchy.

Turkish president signed an executive order last month to form the country’s first official space agency, prompting hopes and questions about the country’s plans and ability to succeed in this endeavor.

The idea has been around for at least since 2002, when Erdoğan was first elected, but it remained a vague campaign promise until 2016 when the government first put it on its action plan.

This is a historic moment, says Mustafa Varank, the Minister of Industry and Technology, noting it is about time for a country whose flag pictures the moon and a star to have a space agency.

The executive order signed on 13 December 2018, list ambitious goals for the agency. These include production of technologies for rocket launch, space exploration and coordination of manned and unmanned space operations.

The funding is to come from an undisclosed percentage from the national budget, donations from third parties, and income from the activities such as consultation and patents.

Also, 20% of the budget of two existing research centers will be redirected to the agency, those of Space Technologies Research Institute of the Scientific and Technological Research Council of Turkey (TÜBİTAK UZAY) and the Directorate-General of Civil Aviation.

Other research labs working in this field, including Turkish Aerospace Industries (TAI), Rocket Industries (ROKETSAN), and TURKSAT — a semi-private satellite organization, will also see their activities being coordinated through the new national agency, says Varank.

Turkey’s contributions to space science will likely be modest given overall funding levels; its total research budget for 2019 is 7.7 billion liras (470 million dollars) — this compares with 20.7 billion dollars the US government appropriated for NASA in 2018.

But the government hopes the agency will also help generate local economic and social benefits.

“Aerospace technologies intersect with many subsectors and it encompasses various important technologies,” says Varank. “The expertise we will gain in this field will be a feedback loop for those subsectors and contribute to the overall socioeconomic development. It will act as a multiplier effect.”

No money has been allocated to the agency yet, and no timeline provided for its set-up. “The judicial details of the agency are still being sorted out,” says Varank.

Scientists have greeted the decree with cautious optimism. They think the agency could contribute to science education and keeping researcher in the country that has faced large brain drain, but they also question the timing of its announcement and its feasibility.

Zafer Emecan, the founder and director of Kozmik Anafor one of the largest popular astronomy websites in Turkey, welcomes the decree. Turkey’s proximity to the equator and its many flatlands, he says, might make it an economical alternative to current launch sites that are used internationally, giving the agency an extra source of revenue in the future. And, he adds, it could become a much need new job creator for graduates of aerospace engineering and astronomy

This boosted human capital will be essential to reach the targets set by the agency and also contribute to the accession to the European Space Agency (ESA). There is a considerable number of students who are very much into the topics of space and science in Turkey. A well-established space program might be just what the young generation need to have hope for the future,” says Umut Yıldız, an astrophysicist and telecommunications engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Emecan, agrees. “Aerospace used to be a hobby for a narrow audience in Turkey. Over the past 5 years, the landscape has changed and now the general public is also showing interest to space.”

“If we consider the interest toward space sciences in Turkey, this new agency came into life right on time,” says Betül Kacar, a Turkish astrobiology professor at the University of Arizona, US. “Space research requires the contribution of many nations and this is a great opportunity for Turkey to be a part of this collaboration. 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.”

But if the agency is to thrive, Turkey will need more astronomers, which could be a challenge given its government’s strained attitude to academic freedoms and brain drain.

“The number of Turkish people who have a professional career on space is currently quite low,” says Yıldız. But, he adds, the numbers will increase if this agency can set exciting goals in space and fund the research in space continuously. “The young generation who is already interested in space can easily be captured with the right initiatives.”

To do this, the government will also need to address the lack of expertise in the field that permeates the educational system from comprehensive school onwards could also be challenge, says who?

“If you graduate from an astronomy or aerospace departments of Turkish universities, you cannot be a school teacher in Turkey,” says Emecan. “Most graduates of these departments work in other sectors, creating a deficiency in high school teachers who could teach astronomy to students.”

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