Latin America’s Not-So-Lunatic Moonshot
By THÉRÈSE MARGOLIS
Although they have yet to resolve the growing covid, economic and poverty crises back on Earth in their respective countries, six Latin American heads of state — led by Mexico’s Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) and Argentina’s Alberto Hernández — announced on Saturday, July 24, the creation of the Latin American and Caribbean Space Agency (ALCE).
The farfetched idea of a Latin American moonshot was first hatched back on Feb. 17, when Nicaragua — one of the region’s poorest and most conflict-prone nations — decided to create a space agency.
One day later, Costa Rica — a far richer and more politically stable nation — decided to follow suit and establish its own agency.
Pretty soon, Mexico, Argentina, Ecuador and Paraguay were jumping on the space race bandwagon, and somebody decided that it would be cheaper and more effective to have a regional agency, rather than individual national agencies.
And thus was born the idea of the ALCE.
In actual fact, the original goal of the Latin American space conglomerate was not to land a man on the moon, but rather to cash in on space technologies such as communications satellites and the prospects of global internet access, as well as weather tracking and natural disaster management.
In fact, Latin American is a bit of a Johnny-come-lately to the space industry, in which more than 50 countries have agencies.
And Ecuador, one of the last countries to join the ALCE pack, has already tried its hand a space, launching an ill-fated satellite in 2013 with the help of China. (The satellite crashed into a Russian rocket one month later, and thus temporarily dashed Ecuador’s dreams of being a global space power.)
Costa Rica managed to get a satellite launched in 2018. It was primarily used to monitor its tropical forests and climate change.
Guatemala — which is not part of the ALCE team — sent up its first satellite late last year.
And all of these space endeavors — successful or otherwise — represent a giant leap for potential economic growth.
Worldwide, the satellite industry is booming, amounting to more than $271 billion in revenues each year.
Consequently, while critics may blame the ALCE member nations for wasting money on astronomically expensive galactic enterprises, the agency, if well managed, could offer the opportunity of technological independence in the region.
It might also offer the chance for participating countries to develop technology-based industries that could buoy national economies.
But the ALCE members today are not just looking at the agency to provide an economic boost.
They also have reach-for-the-stars ambitions of participating in the global return to the moon in 2024 and human missions to Mars.
But these national ego-boosting goals may be little more than pie-in -the-sky musings for the Latin America’s wannabe space cadets.
Even if all the ALCE countries were to combine their entire space research budgets in the centralized agency, they would barely be able to muster $100 million. (The total funds allocated for space research from Mexico, Bolivia and Argentina amount to approximately $95.5 million, of which $81.5 million belongs to Argentina.)
Meanwhile, major European, U.S., Chinese and Russian space industries receive more than $20 billion in government investment each year.
If the ALCE extraterrestrial adventure is to be successful, its members will have to forsake their stellar ambitions and plant their feet firmly on Earth, concentrating on economic rather than glory-worthy goals of conquering outer space.