More than a billion for pole flight into space.  Will it bear fruit?

Copyright: Image. Marcin Stepien/Aginga Wyborcza.plpicture. Martin Stepien…

about sharing Development and Technology Minister Waldemar Boda announced the pole for a mission to the International Space Station (ISS) this week. At first, the news may arouse distrust — government sources reported this possibility as early as May. It was a false start, but now the news of a Polish astronaut being sent into Earth orbit has been confirmed by the Polish Space Agency (POLSA). In an interview with OKO.press, representatives of the organization confirmed that Sławosz Uznański, a reserve astronaut of the European Space Agency (ESA), is a natural candidate for a flight to the International Space Station.

We must pay tribute to Oznansky – world today CENR, the European Organization for Nuclear Research. Without his talent and work, we certainly wouldn’t have had a chance to get back into space. However, this would not have been possible without the large financial contribution of the state, which “bought” the opportunity to participate in scientific experiments outside the atmosphere, including those involving a Polish astronaut. The amount is large, at 295 million euros, which is more than PLN 1.3 billion.

And it is not surprising that some begin to ask questions about the legality of this alimony. The Internet was full of comments calling for a United Right politician to be sent into space. “Gazeta Weborca” She wrote: “It smells like communism” and saw the importance of propaganda for Polish space ambitions. On the other hand, for the development of Polish science – because the pole flight into space will only be one of the components of Poland’s participation in missions to the ISS – we will spend more than twice as much as we spent in 2022 budget support for TVP.

It’s impossible not to see the political context of the issue, he tells us, but that cost can pay off Christopher KanukaPresident of Blue Dot Solutions, a company operating in the Polish aerospace sector.

What led to the fact that we will have a second flight of a pole into space – if we believe Minister Buddha’s assurances?

Christopher Kanuka: At the end of 2022, during the meeting of the Ministerial Council of the European Space Agency (ESA), the results of the appointment of astronauts to the European Corps were announced. Instead of the usual selection of only professional astronauts, the European Space Agency has also chosen “reservists”. These are the people who will continue to work in their “civilian” professions outside the ESA, but if it turns out that their participation in a particular mission will bring benefits, then they will be assigned a flight. Among the backup cosmonauts, there was a Pole, Sławosz Uznański. From here, a serious discussion began about the possibility of returning the pole to the International Space Station.

But at the end of last year, he didn’t seem overly optimistic. Poland has spent too little on the space sector to seriously talk about our astronaut flight at the European Space Agency. In the following months, the Ministry of Development and Technology began work and negotiations to increase our financial contribution to the European Space Agency. One of its components – although not the dominant one – is also Poland’s participation in the exploration programs, that is, in everything related to manned flights. Thus, our path to space flight was opened.

However, it should be noted that the Pole will not fly a Polish missile.

It is likely that the pole flight will be carried out by the American company Axiom Space, which has signed contracts with the European Space Agency and NASA. Axiom has already flown missions to the International Space Station twice. The first was commercial, ordinary people flew. The second involved two astronauts from Saudi Arabia, who were paid for by the state. So it turns out that we are probably dealing with a new trend: flights with Axiom Space using SpaceX capsules with a financial contribution from the astronaut’s country of origin, staying there for several days, and then returning to Earth. On the next Axiom mission, likely later this year, the Swede, also selected as a “reserve”, will fly into orbit. After this choice, the Swedish Space Agency decided to act and with the support of the European Space Agency signed a contract with Axiom for the flight of its compatriot.

What might a pole’s journey into space look like, and what can we gain from his stay at the station?

The International Space Station is basically a very large laboratory. Seven astronauts and cosmonauts reside there regularly, six days a week, working primarily on science experiments. There are many scientific stations – from freezers, through stations exposed to external conditions, biological research units, to robotic arms. The space station contains the European Columbus Module with research stations inside the station and in open space, where tested technologies or samples are exposed to vacuum conditions and radiation. For 10 years of the Polish presence in the European Space Agency, due to Poland’s small contribution to the agency, our access to the station was limited. There are only a few small experiments involving Polish techniques conducted.

German, French, Italian, Spanish, Swedish, Dutch, Belgian and British research institutions and universities, among others, have benefited from access to the International Space Station. It concerns both technologies that are useful on Earth, for example telecommunications or nanosensors, and those that are useful for other flights, for example to the Moon – radiation detectors and radiation shielding technologies.

There are many possibilities. A significant part of the experiments also has biotechnological or medical significance. These are all useful things. The main advantage of the station is the conditions of vacuum, radiation and lack of gravity. This immediately gives the technology a certificate of operation under operating conditions. Thanks to tests on the International Space Station, we simply know that it will perform well in space. This makes it easier to find customers and convince them of your solutions.

Does Poland have such technologies?

Right now, the European Space Agency (ESA) has opened a competition to create concepts and solutions that can be tested on a space station. The minimum level of technology that can ever be launched is TRL 5. This means that the prototype has been tested in conditions close to operating – for example, mechanically or temperature – which confirms that the solution will operate in space with high probability and lower risk. Personally, I estimate that there may be about a hundred such solutions in Poland at the moment. Polish companies and research centers have their own rockets, engines, communication technologies and biological solutions.

The announced competition also includes terrestrial imaging and communications solutions. The result could be, for example, new applications with important data for agriculture or environmental protection. In the end, we will also have Polish Earth observation satellites, just for us and our civil and military needs. So there is a lot to use and choose from.

To be able to take exams, you simply have to buy a place at the station?

This is an important issue that has not been adequately addressed. At the moment the Polish Space Agency is doing a great job, although I think that as a society we can probably expect to have a full set of information: that many experiments will go to the station, that they are so important and worth a lot of money, that we can use them in this way . It is simply too early to have this information at the moment, as the first trials are being selected. In the space sector, it’s hard to get such clear answers quickly. It is impossible to suddenly obtain “magic” technology with one flight that would change the world.

Most of them require significant financial expenditures and a long probationary period. Countries, institutions and companies that have been investing in the space sector for long enough and continually reaping the effects after some time. This is the case in France, China, the United States and Germany. Domestic solutions, tested at the station, are now being implemented not only in the space sector. That is why today France and the United States have their own manufacturers of telecommunications satellites, and I will jokingly add that we have not heard of a North Korean manufacturer of such devices, for example. After one flight, we’re not going to see a breakthrough, but the consistency and stability of the funding that allows access to this space is important. It is my hope that the first series of these experiments will pave the way for more opportunities to use the International Space Station.

After all, are we going to sell our technology?

It seems to us that Poland is a developed and safe country, and we have access to all the goods we need. However, I estimate that we are still a middle-income country. Poland is too rich a country to be a burden to the international community, but also too poor to produce new technologies and base its economy on knowledge and experience.

It is true that we have access to the latest technology, both civil and military, but these are foreign technologies that we have to buy. For years, R&D spending has been very low. We still have relatively few truly innovative solutions that can compete with American, Chinese and German solutions. So let’s hope a new perspective opens up here.

Or maybe we are just dealing with a one-time act? After all, we are entering the election campaign, it is worth bragging about our man in space, who is leaving thanks to the efforts of the government.

The allocation of funds for Polish research in space coincided strangely with an election year, and the discussion of these funds in the Parliamentary Committee on Public Finance was very short. There was one request from an opposition parliamentarian for more information, because so far nothing is known about Poland’s participation in the mission to the International Space Station. Not much has happened in the space sector over the years. In 2017, the government adopted the Polish Space Strategy, which defined the direction in which we had to develop and what this development would serve. There, among other things, satellite solutions and the creation of telecommunications technologies were discussed. However, over the years, the National Space Program has not created such a “mechanism” that would allow finding practical solutions that could be used.

And now, suddenly, without prior announcements, it turns out that Poland will spend four times more on the space sector than before, and one of the components is that the pole will appear in space again, that we will have more opportunities to develop Polish satellite technologies. It’s hard to believe that this is a story without a political background. However, the social and political response is very optimistic. Everyone seems to agree that Poland needs to invest more in research and development, including in the space sector. This should be followed by investments in other industries, which will be of great importance for Poland’s competitiveness. It depends on whether we will continue to be consumers of only modern solutions, or whether we will produce them.

Marcel Wandas

Reporter, author of texts on climate and economics. A graduate of Maria Curie-Skłodowska University in Lublin, he previously worked for, among others, Radio Eska and Radio Kraków, and has also published in Magazyn WP.pl and Wyborcza.pl.

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