Why is Turkey starting a space programme amid a domestic crisis?

Is it the right time for a mission in the great beyond, when Turkey has so many earthly challenges to address?

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks during Turkey's "space program " in Ankara, Turkey, late Tuesday, Feb. 9, 2021. A metal monolith that mysteriously appeared and disappeared on a field in southeast Turkey turned out to be a publicity gimmick ahead of a government event Tuesday during which Erdogan announced a space program for the country. (Turkish Presidency via AP, Pool)
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Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan early this month laid out bold plans for his country’s nascent space programme, most notably including a moon landing in 2023, the year of the Turkish Republic’s centennial as well as its next national election.

Further details emerged last week, including a budget of more than $1 billion and the selection of Somalia for the site of a rocket launch, due to its proximity to the equator.

Government critics have piled on, claiming that the ambitious 10-year space programme is mainly a diversion from a deeply troubled economy and weak polling numbers. The opposition DEVA party tweeted out a mock newspaper front page showing an astronaut pushing a shopping cart over the surface of the moon, highlighting Turks’ more immediate concerns.

Opposition politicians have pointed out that the Turkish Space Agency has a budget of just $40 million

But space exploration tends to boost a country's science and tech sectors, and Turkey’s space vision dovetails with some of its other international initiatives. The choice of Somalia, for instance, furthers Ankara’s broader push into Africa, where Turkish trade has leapt from $3bn to $26bn under the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the number of Turkish embassies has nearly quadrupled, from 12 to 42.

After giving considerable aid to Somalia and building a military base there, Mr Erdogan is said to be close with Somali President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed. He is, of course, also friendly with Prime Minister Fayez Al Sarraj of Libya’s Government of National Accord, which Turkey has bolstered with a sizable military intervention in return for a maritime borders agreement and likely future economic deals.

It comes as no surprise that Turkey seems to view its space programme and broader technological development as key to gaining a place among the world’s most advanced states and a seat at a more influential diplomatic table.

“Each new discovery in space has the potential of increasing international co-operation, serving the interests of world peace,” Mustafa Varank, Turkey’s industry and technology minister, said in a tweet praising the UAE’s successful Mars mission.

In response, Sarah Al Amiri, the UAE's Minister of State for Advanced Technology wished Turkey success in its own future space missions.

Relations between Ankara and the Emirates have been mostly frosty since several Gulf states’ severing of relations in 2017 with Qatar, Turkey’s close ally and fellow Muslim Brotherhood supporter. Now that relations have been largely restored in recent weeks, Turkey has expressed interest in rekindling ties with the UAE as well as Saudi Arabia.

This explains why top Erdogan adviser Fahrettin Altun, the president’s communications director, shared Mr Varank’s post. “Space is the ultimate reminder of humanity’s unity,” Mr Altun said in his own tweet. “Congratulations on this accomplishment.”

There is some history of space programmes bridging diplomatic divides. Starting in the 1970s and 80s, the US and USSR, foes in the Cold War at the time, began collaborating on the Apollo-Soyuz and Shuttle-Mir projects, laying the groundwork for diplomacy. This was followed by the two working closely to build the International Space Station, which hosted Americans and Russians working side by side for years.

Turkey has already begun leveraging the development of its tech and defence sectors to build stronger regional ties. In the past year Ankara inked major defence deals with Pakistan and Ukraine, underscoring its advanced capabilities. Advanced Turkish drones have repeatedly made their mark on the battlefield, boosting Turkey’s standing in Libya, Azerbaijan and beyond.

Merchandise and packaged goods, ready to be exported, in the street outside a wholesale businesses in Istanbul, Turkey, on Wednesday, Feb. 2, 2021. Turkish inflation quickened for a fourth month as the lingering impact of a weak lira led to a broad-based rise in prices. Photographer: Nicole Tung/Bloomberg
Inflation in the country continues to rise with no end in sight. Bloomberg

Turkey had been a key figure in the production of American F-35 fighter jets, responsible for hundreds of parts, until it was removed from the programme in 2019 for its purchase of Russian-made missile systems. Last week, a top Turkish defence firm hired a prominent Washington lobbyist to help Turkey get back into the F-35 supply chain – another effort to link Turkey’s tech and industrial development to its international standing.

But space could be a tougher mountain to climb. Opposition politicians have pointed out that the Turkish Space Agency (TUA) has a budget of just $40 million, underscoring Turkey’s lack of experience and investment in space. In response to this charge, a Turkish official has said that TUA will only coordinate the programme while state-run defence contractors do the heavy lifting. He pointed to the little-known Turkish firm, Deltav, which has already produced an advanced rocket engine and is expected to receive some $600m of the space funds.

But Deltav is linked to the Turkish presidency, sparking fears that the space programme could be another way for Mr Erdogan to funnel money to his friends and allies using no-bid contracts, as he has reportedly done for many years in Turkey’s vast construction industry.

Also, the choice of Somalia raises questions. While reasonable from the view of rocket science, Somalia remains one of the more unstable countries in a very unstable region – less than ideal for launching rockets into space. In addition, the expense of shipping all that manpower and material thousands of kilometers away may be feasible for a country like France, which built its launch site in French Guiana, but for Turkey, which is still developing and has been struggling through an extended economic crisis, it may be a bridge too far.

Yet last week, JP Morgan did raise its expectations for Turkey’s 2021 economic growth to 4.6 per cent, adding that the country had out-performed most of its peers during the pandemic. This might give Ankara a bit of budgetary breathing room in the months between now and the next major vote, scheduled for June 2023.

Perhaps the Turkish government will find more worthy tech projects than the one it launched on Friday: a digital lorry that will crisscross the country presenting technological advancements from the 1990s, including a talking hologram, a green screen and a motion-sensitive display. “Turkey's historical, cultural and scientific richness offers the highest possibilities of using digital technology,” Mr Altun said in a tweet kicking off the lorry’s journey. It is telling that the its 52-city tour does not include Turkey’s two biggest and most important population centres, Istanbul and Ankara, where global-minded denizens would likely have had little interest.

Will Turkey’s space programme be more like its advanced drones, or its Digital Truck? Time will tell.

David Lepeska is a Turkish and Eastern Mediterranean affairs columnist for The National