Is US$1 billion for spaceport about science or power?

The strategically located and tiny East African state of Djibouti will be building a spaceport valued at US$1 billion, which could see the first launch from the continent of an African-made satellite, while it promotes the development of scientific expertise.

At present, there are 35 spaceports and facilities worldwide that can launch satellites into sub-orbit, orbit, and beyond, according to the Go Astronomy website. This spaceport is expected to include seven satellite launch pads and three rocket-testing pads.

China, which has already invested millions of US dollars in infrastructure in Djibouti, is funding the project.

While the envisaged project is set to enhance African universities’ capabilities in the field of space science, it appears to reflect the power struggles between China, the United States and several European players that have military bases in the country, which controls access to one of the world’s busiest sea routes through the Suez channel, with the nearby Gulf of Aden, also of importance for shipping in the area, often plagued by piracy.

The Djiboutian Spaceport was outlined in the 9 January agreement between Chinese Hong Kong Aerospace Technology (HKAT) and Djibouti that was signed by Djibouti’s President Ismail Omar Guelleh.

The HKAT-Djibouti agreement stated that, “the Djiboutian government will provide the necessary land (minimum 10 square kilometres, and with a term of not less than 35 years) and all the necessary assistance to build and operate the Djiboutian spaceport”.

The agreement indicated that this project will allow HKAT “a smooth entrance into the aerospace business in Djibouti”.

But higher education experts have warned that the agreement has to be structured in such a way that real technology transfer and scientific human resource development take place.

Asked what the investment partner wants in return from Djibouti, XN Iraki, an associate professor of data science, innovation and technology management at the University of Nairobi, Kenya, told University World News that “China wants to get a foothold on the African continent to exert her influence through the spaceport.”

Iraki’s view is supported by a 2021 report, The militarization of the Horn of Africa – Examining China’s military base in Djibouti, that showed how Djibouti’s location is important to secure China’s political, investment and business interests in Africa.

But, added Iraki, the spaceport “should be a shared facility among the African universities, to learn the supply chain of space science, from launch to communication and data-gathering.

“Africa should not be left behind in space science,” he emphasised.

Building the spaceport is one of the initiatives of Djibouti's space programme, which includes launching two nanosatellites called, Djibouti-1A and Djibouti-1B, along with sending students abroad for training.

Djibouti’s move to establish its spaceport aligns with a November 2022 study by Óscar Garrido, a senior analyst at the Spanish Institute for Strategic Studies, titled, ‘A common African outer space policy to meet the continent’s challenges’ which stated that “Africa cannot remain a net importer of space technologies because, in the long run, this will hamper its socio-economic development, security and independence.”

Garrido told University World News, that a Djiboutian spaceport could also be a region source for space-related technological resources for African universities and its associated science centres for “facilitating space research for local and regional needs as well as opening new education and training programmes” for the development of a specialised and skilled academic talent pool.

African universities’ benefits

Hassan Rayaleh, research valorisation senior programme manager at the Doctorate School of the University of Djibouti, told University World News: “The government of Djibouti, through the ministry of higher education and research, seeks to promote space research to have our own data and information that help policy-makers to take evidence-based decisions.”

According to Rayaleh, this will provide new research and education development opportunities along with enhancing the scientific and technical capacity for the country and, in turn, create job opportunities and stimulate economic growth.

“This spaceport will also help Djibouti’s university in doing research to assess and monitor the possible future impact of climate change as well as disaster and risk management that could lead to better management of environmental challenges,” Rayaleh added.

Ivorian scientist Adu Yao Nikez, based at The Peoples’ Friendship University of Russia, also known as RUDN University, welcomed the spaceport project in Djibouti.

“A Djiboutian spaceport will be a great contribution, not only to Djibouti as an effective tool for promoting the role of space science and education in achieving Sustainable Development Goals, but also for the whole African continent,” Nikez told University World News.

“Of course, a Djiboutian spaceport will be a great opportunity for African universities, as it could help in promoting space research for economic development,” Nikez added.

Nikez is the lead author of the October 2020 study, ‘African Union Outer Space Program: Chances and Challenges’.

Fabrice Jaumont, an international education expert and a research fellow at the Fondation Maison des Sciences de l’Homme (Foundation of Human Sciences) in Paris, said the establishment of the first African orbital spaceport would also enable African countries and universities to independently launch and track their own satellites and participate in global space research and international education initiatives.

A centre of excellence

Professor Atta-ur-Rahman, former coordinator-general of the Standing Committee on Scientific and Technological Cooperation of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, which has 22 African member countries, told University World News that the project should be designed and executed to create a Djibouti-based centre of excellence in space engineering for indigenous human resource development and technology transfer.

“This would require training several thousand scientists and engineers in various aspects of space engineering, including design, electronics and materials engineering,” he added.

“The project of the orbital spaceport should ensure that the second orbital spacecraft is totally manufactured (not just superficially assembled) within Djibouti,” Atta-ur-Rahman said.

“Because such projects often lead to much publicity but not to genuine technology transfer, it is, therefore, imperative that the engineering universities in Djibouti get deeply involved in technology training and transfer,” Atta-ur-Rahman advised.

In 2022, African nations allocated a total of US$534.9 million for the operation of their respective space programmes, and 13 African nations have manufactured a total of 48 satellites, according to the 2022 African Space Industry Annual Report.