Space, the government’s new high-tech research frontier

Reflecting South Korea’s emerging interest in space technology, President Yoon Suk-yeol referred to space as a new area of cooperation with the United States during a speech to a joint session of the United States Congress on 27 April as part of his six-day official visit.

Yoon’s government has already announced a huge boost to research funding in this area, including joint research with South Korean universities.

“Together, we will open another new successful chapter. We will explore new frontiers in outer space and cyberspace,” Yoon told the US Congress. He also visited the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) Goddard Space Flight Center near Washington DC on 25 April, delivering a joint speech with US Vice President Kamala Harris, emphasising the importance of South Korea-US space cooperation.

After the president’s 24-29 April US visit, South Korea’s Ministry of Education announced a new programme called the ‘KorUS Educational Exchange Initiative for Youth in STEM’.

Student exchange

It followed a joint statement by the two presidents on 26 April to launch a US$60 million education exchange initiative funded by both parties.

The exchange will involve some 2,023 students from each country – “symbolic of the year 2023” – by 2027 and could be expanded to include more if there is demand. Undergraduate students in semiconductor design, quantum technology and aerospace technology will have opportunities to take part in the exchanges.

As part of the joint initiative, the two countries will together spend US$15 million to launch the Fulbright STEM Scholars Exchange Program that will support a total of 200 students engaged in high-technology research. The programme will allow 100 Korean students to complete graduate and doctoral degrees in the US and it is expected to be the largest US government Fulbright programme in the advanced technology sector.

In return, 100 researchers in advanced fields from the US will be supported to carry out research in Korean universities. While the focus is not specifically on space-related technologies, these are also expected to benefit.

Global cooperation

South Korea is actively pushing global cooperation to strengthen space technology research and development (R&D). Accompanying Yoon on his state visit to the US, South Korean Minister of Science and ICT Lee Jong-ho met with NASA Deputy Administrator Pam Melroy and signed a joint statement on cooperation in space exploration and space science.

Last August Lee met Chirag Parikh, executive secretary of the White House National Space Council, and NASA Administrator Bill Nelson to discuss cooperation in the area.

Korea’s Ministry of Science and ICT has already discussed space-related cooperation with other countries including France, Italy and Australia, and signed memoranda of understanding with Luxembourg and the United Arab Emirates.

The South Korean government’s internal efforts have focused on boosting research, including investment in higher education.

For example, Kyung Hee University has collaborated in developing technology to measure lunar magnetic fields for instruments on board South Korea’s first lunar orbiter Danuri, launched in August last year.

The country’s homegrown Nuri space rocket, launched in June 2022 after a failed attempt in October 2021, successfully released four small cube satellites jointly developed by Chosun University, Seoul National University, Yonsei University and the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST).

The Ministry of Education is preparing to develop a plan by the latter half of this year to increase the number of specialist graduates and researchers in aerospace technology and high-tech.

New Korean NASA

In March the government announced an almost 20% increase in the budget for space programmes for this year, bringing the current annual budget to KRW874.2 billion (US$655 million).

Yoon said last November the government would double the space budget in the next five years and channel at least KRW100 trillion (US$75 billion) into the space sector by 2045. Much of this will be spent on developing civilian satellites and navigation systems, rocket launches and space defence, but R&D, including research collaboration with universities, is also a component.

On 4 April Korea’s Ministry of Science and ICT announced that the “Special Act on the Installation and Operation of the Korea Aerospace Administration”, to set up a Korean version of NASA, was approved by the cabinet and would be tabled in parliament for approval. The current plan is to open the new agency as a separate administrative agency under the ministry by December this year.

According to the proposed law, the operations of the new agency will include training new talent and space technology R&D, which could lead to greater investment in related university programmes or research centres.

Lea Tai-sik, president of the Korean Federation of Science and Technology Societies, said: “We need the participation of all related researchers from various industries, government institutes and universities to make the Korea Aerospace Administration like NASA.

“Innovative success needs challenging research, so the government needs to be selective and concentrate its investments to boost technology in high-tech areas.”

South Gyeongsang province, the site for the proposed agency, is already preparing the way, with universities, including Gyeongsang National University and Kyungnam University, developing a micro-satellite system called JINJUSat-2 as well as increasing the number of places to train more graduate students to become researchers.

Other institutions are also keen to get involved, even as experts noted that the new agency would not be for theoretical research only.

Yoon Hyosang, aerospace engineering professor at KAIST, told online newspaper Chosunbiz on 17 April: “The government should remember the aerospace industry is a heavy industry, which means it is not about writing research articles but actually repeating the process of making and improving products. The government needs to invest while bearing the risk of failures. There will only be results after investing capital, human resources and time.”

Increased investment in R&D

The Fifth Science and Technology Master Plan (2023-2027) published on 14 December last year, with stronger R&D strategies as one of its three major objectives, included a long-term researcher support programme, allocation of an inter-governmental budget for R&D investment, nurturing of a key research workforce and nurturing of universities as research hubs.

Notably, the ministry confirmed it will provide an additional KRW500 million (US$375,000) to two research centres and KRW200 million (US$150,000) to five research centres next year for new space-related projects.

Other funding initiatives are including aerospace as one of the high-tech areas for priority funding, including the Ministry of Education’s glocal universities plan and the Ministry of Science and ICT’s ‘ICT convergence graduate schools’ programme which funds selected ICT graduate schools that conduct research into technology convergence with ICT, such as in aerospace, unmanned mobility metaverse, smart shipping, etc.

The Ministry of Education is also preparing a plan by the latter half of this year to increase talent in aerospace technology and other high-tech areas.