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Turkey’s space agency still stalled by lack of policy and disagreements over who is in charge

Arianespace’s Vega launcher ascends from the Spaceport with its Earth observation payload on December 5, 2016. Flight VV08. GÖKTÜRK-1; Credits: Arianespace

With the launch last week of Göktürk-1, the latest Turkish reconnaissance satellite, attention has now turned to the status of the long awaited Turkish Space Agency.

Writing in Al-Monitor, Turkish journalist and retired military officer, Metin Gurcan, has provided revealing details about why the Turkish government has found establishing a national space agency to be a difficult task.

The recent Göktürk-1 satellite launch is the latest Turkish satellite that is part of an ambitious plan to establish Turkey as a regional space power, Gurcan wrote, “Turkey wants to increase its number of satellites to 10 by 2023. The goal is to operate a fleet that will cover South America, eastern North America, Europe, Asia, Western Australia and all of Africa. When that project is complete, Turkey will have direct communication links with 91% of the world population through its own satellites.”

The Turkish government has allocated a U.S.$1 billion budget for this aggressive satellite manufacturing and launch schedule, and has also built a U.S.$112 million satellite integration facility outside of Ankara. Turkey intends manufacture and launch its Turksat 5A and Turksat 5B communications satellites in cooperation with Japanese satellite manufacturer Mitsubishi. Ankara then intends to build its Turksat 6A by itself, and is scheduled to launch that satellite in 2019. There are even plans to establish an indigenous Turkish launch capability and the area of Mugla, on Turkey’s southwest Mediterranean coastline, is being considered as possible location for a launch site.

According to Gurcan, Turkey’s satellite programme is part of a wider effort to achieve strategic and technological autonomy quoting Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan as saying, “From our many friends in NATO, we want to buy unarmed [drones] — not even armed ones. They tell us, ‘Not today; ask tomorrow.’ And their final excuse is, ‘Congress did not allow it.’ Aren’t we together in NATO? Aren’t we on the same side? What are they doing to us? But their attitude taught us lessons. We are now manufacturing ourselves what we need, much more cheaply.”

Yet this quest for Turkish strategic and technological autonomy in space is held back by a number of deficiencies, according to Gurcan. The first deficiency is that so far a national space agency for Turkey has yet to be established, primarily because agreement on who should run the agency – civilians or the military – cannot be reached.

“Incredibly,” writes Gurcan, “Turkey tried and failed to form an agency four times: in 1990, 1995, 2000 and 2011. It appears the failures were caused by dismal coordination between the government, parliament and the military command, and their struggle over whether the military or civilians would run the agency.”

These disagreements persist to this day, apparently, even though the Turkish government has tabled a bill in parliament seeking to establish a national space agency. According to Gurcan:

According to new plans under a draft bill being prepared, the Space Agency of Turkey (TUA) will resemble such agencies in other countries and will be under full civilian control, apolitical, self-sufficient and empowered to coordinate with other entities at the highest levels. It will also have a unit that will plan and coordinate military and space operations related to national security. Yet the bill has been delayed, once again because of major problems in determining how the military and civilians will share authority and responsibility. Arguments on the functions, relations with universities and the defense industry, and the budget might also help explain why Turkey has not been able to set up its TUA for 26 years.

Another deficiency is the absence of a national space policy, but with constant disagreement about who should run a national space agency, the lack of a space policy will have to wait. “… given the unresolved strategic imbroglio, all this will take more time,” writes Gurcan.

An additional significant challenge is finding and retaining qualified personnel. According to Gurcan, there are only 500 people working in the Turkish space sector today, and only 150 of those are engineers. On top of this, there is hardly any funding for research and development making it even more difficult to sustain the Turkish space sector into the future.

Furthermore, the aftermath of the 15 July 2016 attempted coup is impacting the Turkish space sector. “Turkey will have to come up with a long-term personnel recruitment and training plan for space activities,” writes Gurcan, “especially since the Turkish air force, which is the driving engine of space activities, has suffered significant personnel losses since the July 15 coup attempt and subsequent purge. In the aftermath of the purge, some of the qualified space project personnel were dismissed, the Air Force Academy closed and the Aeronautics and Space Technologies Institute, which was the sole institution offering graduate studies in space sciences, was shut down.”

Turkish officials may find that launching satellites is easier than creating the agency and policies needed to use them.

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