Czech space agency floated to boost local aerospace sector

Illustrative photo: Czech Television

Space today is much more of a civil than military frontier and, with one eye on its proud tradition in aviation, the Czech Republic is looking to get a bigger slice of the commercial space cake. And one way that’s been mooted for that to happen is for the Czech government to revamp its space sector activities and create a Czech space agency.

Radek Špicar, photo: Matěj Pálka
The idea for a Czech space agency has been floated by Deputy Prime Minister Pavel Bělobrádek, tasked with piloting the country’s research and development activities. And, appropriately, it was during a recent visit to Florida, one of the hubs of the world leader in the space sector, the United States, that the idea was raised.

Bělobrádek was accompanied by a local business delegation to the United States with one of the leader’s being Radek Špicar, the vice president of one of the biggest Czech business lobbies, the Association of Industry and Transport. He filled in some of the background.

“The air and space industry has a long tradition in the Czech Republic and we have some really good companies doing some very good business, basically worldwide, in this sector. So we are of the opinion that it would really make sense to strengthen and to make it more important than it is at the moment.”

Many of the Czech companies have traditionally been plugged into the military aviation sector, but the commercial space sector now appears to be where a lot more of the money is. And as far as Europe is concerned a lot of funding and research is being channeled through the European Space Agency. Radek Špicar again.

“There are many companies, both domestic companies established after the Velvet Revolution owned by Czech businessmen, and also daughter companies of global players. Of course, it’s a combination of military companies. clients from the military, but also clients from the civil sector. And I would say what really helps is our integration in military structures through projects run by big companies by Airbus, for example, or cooperation with the European Space Agency.”

“It is a company which has been working with the Airbus company and the European Space Agency providing some hi-tech spare parts for European rockets.”

The Czech Republic is one of the 22 members of the European Space Agency after signing up in 2008. Not all European countries have such full membership status, for example neighbouring Slovakia and Slovenia, only have what the Czechs had before, cooperation status. Membership gives you a seat with the decision makers and some influence on how the upcoming projects are framed and where the spending is directed.

Radek Špicar referred to one of the early Czech companies in the aerospace sector, Frentech, which was formed in 1997 and had its first contract from major global company Airbus just four years later. It’s precision engineering has helped it open such doors.

“I was in the United States leading a business delegation together with Deputy Prime Minister Bělobrádek a few weeks ago. To give you a specific example, I was there with Mr. Sobotka, the CEO of Frentech Airspace, a Brno-based company. It is a company which has been working with the Airbus company and the European Space Agency providing some hi-tech spare parts for European rockets. So there are companies like that which have this capacity and can expand their capacities, within Europe but also worldwide.”

In both the United States and Europe, state institutions still play a leading role, but commercial ventures and cooperation has also come much more centre stage in coming up with projects, building the rockets, and providing the back up on the ground for projects.

Illustrative photo: Czech Television
More countries, such as India, China, Brazil, are now in the space sector and projects, such as mining asteroids, which might have seemed like science fiction a decade or so ago now look they could be serious prospects. While Czech companies might not play a major role in these projects, Radek Špicar says they could come on board with some important back up roles and contracts.

“This is happening, you know it. There are leaders in this trend, mostly within the United States, but also in Europe. I cannot say that we have players in this game in the Czech Republic, something like Space X or something like that. But we have companies that can help these leaders in their efforts. This is a trend, it is happening the commercialization and privatization of space research is taking place and it is providing new opportunities and new business concepts and forms of cooperation for Czech companies and Czech suppliers. So we will come in, we think this will provide many more opportunities that will be relevant and important for the Czech sector.”

The Czech industry lobby backs the idea of a sort of Czech NASA, the sector’s own space agency, and has hopes that the idea mooted by Deputy Prime Minister Bělobrádek will fly. Radek Špicar again:

“We hope that this will be the one of the results of his term in office, the creation of an independent Czech space agency.”

“I think it would make sense to have something like that established in the Czech Republic because if it was detached from the ministries it could be more efficient and more effective. And because, as I said, this segment in the Czech Republic is really important, I think it would deserve such an institution which would play a coordinating role and which would be more independent than the current structure. We discussed that with Deputy Prime Minister Bělobrádek. He seems to be in favour of this idea and so we hope that this will be the one of the results of his term in office, the creation of an independent Czech space agency.”

At the moment, responsibility for the space sector covers three main ministries, transport, education, and industry as well as the research and development responsibilities coming under Pavel Bělobrádek himself, who does not have the backing of a ministry. The Deputy Prime Minister believes that Czech efforts are too dispersed as a result.

Pavel Bělobrádek, photo: archive of European People's Party, CC BY 2.0
“We realise that we do not have any kind of central body or agency, we just have some sort of coordinating group. That is why we think it would be worthwhile to focus things on some sort of central authority. The current scattering of efforts and focus is one factor in this and another is that at the moment space research was somewhat artificially handed over to the ministries of education and transport and now we are talking with transport about taking this under our wing and that space research would be part of our activities. That would enable us to focus things better because we are one of those who are at the moment working very closely with the ministries of industry and education. That’s part of the logic why this agency should come within our ambit.”

Even in European countries where the space sector is relatively large and lavishly funded, the number of jobs directly at stake is fairly small. In France, for example, which boasts state funding only second to the US, its estimated that only around 15,000 jobs are directly in the space sector. But these jobs are well paid and have a lot of added value with many spin off commercial applications, know-how, jobs and earnings resulting in sectors far removed from the space sector itself.

Pavel Bělobrádek reckons a Czech space agency could give local experts a greater chance to influence European space research and for Czech companies to take part in its programmes.

“We have a real interest that the Czech Republic does not fall behind other European countries and that we have some influence on the direction and take part in some of these research projects.”

“We have a real interest that the Czech Republic does not fall behind other European countries and that we have some influence on the direction and take part in some of these research projects. A lot of these programmes are long-term, some of them perhaps lasting decades, many of them are hi-tech and there are many commercial aspects to the that can be applied afterwards. We can certainly offer something valuable to other countries. What is important is that our 10-million strong Czech Republic, we’re not in a position certainly to have a big agency, but it should be able to have a coordinating role between private companies and the state and with foreign partners and it should also be able to in some degree point the way forward, perhaps with state support, where the private sector should be heading.“

The new look NASA in the United States is a sign of the times, much less the all encompassing sector leader and project creator it was a decade or more ago. It now buys a lot of its services from private space companies and seeks to pilot the general lines of research and development rather than plotting the detailed course and manning all stations itself. Bělobrádek says the idea of a Czech space agency is still at a very early stage with talks launched with government colleagues about what its mission could be and how its responsibilities could be mapped out. But he has high hopes the idea will get off the ground.