Is the Thai government serious about space?

The Minister of Higher Education, Science, Research and Innovation Anek Laothamatas is not a man who typically generates headlines. Yet he managed to raise more than a few eyebrows when he declared that in seven years, Thailand will send a spacecraft to orbit the moon. 

By becoming the fifth nation in Asia to have this capability, Anek explained, “the project will forever change the whole perspective of Thai people that Thailand is no longer a developing country but is a country with a future, opportunity, and hope.”

The comment was met with both puzzlement and mockery.

Did Anek just finish reading a biography of John F. Kennedy and wanted to give his own extortion towards cosmic ambitions?

And could the minister deal with slightly more mundane concerns first — it’d be nice to finally have the same card work for both the BTS and MRT, or a million other concerns — before Thailand goes to the moon? And that being said, don’t some of Bangkok’s sidewalks already resemble the lunar surface? 

Anek doubled down, however, stating on December 25th that the government will be holding a press conference in January to further outline its space ambitions. So how seriously should we take the government’s plans to conquer space? Is it all talk?

Thailand’s interest in space spans back decades: the Geo-Informatics and Space Technology Development Agency (GISTDA), which currently serves as Thailand’s space agency and focuses on satellite technology, was established twenty years ago. 

And with relatively little fanfare, the government has been moving in recent years to further flesh out Thailand’s space program. In August 2019, the Prayut government created a space operations center, which was intended to lay the foundation for protecting Thailand’s national security interests in space. In September 2020, the Royal Thai Air Force launched its first satellite to be used for security purposes, Napa-1. 

But the current administration has been interested in more than just the national security implications of space. 

Back in 2017, the National Space Policy Committee drafted a master plan for 2020-2037 which called for the drafting of a National Space Act. The bill would establish a National Space Agency to coordinate all of Thailand’s space activities and enact laws regarding outer space. The activities covered under this bill is broad, including space tourism and space mining. It will also support the growth of a space economy, including the manufacturing of satellites and spacecraft and funding for space-related research. 

The NSPC approved a draft of the National Space Act in October this year, Later that same month, a meeting of the National Digital Economy and Society commission chaired by Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha agreed to forward this bill for cabinet consideration. 

Of course, concrete plans still seem a lot less clear cut than what Anek would have us believe. On December 9th, GISTDAa Executive Director Dr. Pakorn Apaphant said that it was time to analyze what Thailand is capable of accomplishing in space within the next 5-10 years. 

One moonshot (forgive the pun) is the eventual construction of a spaceport that can launch rockets into space, which would spur further innovation and growth in Thailand’s domestic space industry.

While the full vision of the government’s space program is still hazy, it is clear that Thailand can hardly afford to ignore new frontiers. 

The space economy is becoming increasingly important, and according to Morgan Stanley, the industry is expected to generate $1.1 trillion of revenue globally in 2040. Given the myriad of other benefits that come with space capabilities, such as natural disaster aversion, expanding Thailand’s ambitions in space may make economic sense.

Other ASEAN countries recognize these opportunities and several, including Laos and Vietnam, outspent Thailand in 2012 on space research. 

In addition, the development of a space program may very much be a part of Thailand’s long tradition of maintaining diplomatic balance. As Settapong Malisuwan, a Bhumjaithai MP who serves at the Ministry for Digital Economy and Society, argues: “Thailand must strive to maintain balance in the space competition between great powers, and to develop our own domestic space industry…otherwise, we’ll simply have to accept their policies and we’ll have no bargaining power.” 

At the same time, Anek’s comments should still be viewed skeptically, given how massive an undertaking launching an expedition to the moon is. Opposition politicians are right to question whether developing a fully-fledged domestic space program, especially if the price tag is astronomical, is reasonable with all the priorities that Thailand has much closer to home. 

And of course. the current circumstances, with Thailand still struggling with a second wave of coronavirus, also makes people rightly wonder whether the government has got their priorities right. 

In the end, Thailand’s space dreams for the next decade are likely to be less grandiose than Anek’s statement leads us to think. And ultimately, if the government wants to sell a bigger space program to a skeptical public, it will need to do better on the communication front than a random proclamation of a mission to the moon. 

But with the government’s emerging extraterrestrial ambitions quite clear, Thailand’s space program is something to keep an eye on. 

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