Egypt’s ghost space program

"Ask for an education, even if you are in China" is one of the many supposedly motivational slogans painted on the walls of Egypt’s public schools.


But earlier this year, China positioned an entire space laboratory in orbit, and then successfully launched a spacecraft to dock with it. Meanwhile, Egypt’s most recent piece of space-related news concerns an observational satellite that reportedly “vanished,” causing widespread confusion and inspiring countless conspiracy theories until technicians discovered the battery in its communication system had died halfway into its five-year mission.

At one point in time, the Egyptian Space Program had genuine potential; perhaps even enough for it to have eventually become an institution more concerned with exploring the universe, as opposed to merely observing it. Today, even functioning in an observational capacity might still prove too ambitious for the program’s woeful status.

“In terms of space programs, Egypt is now lagging behind countries like Algeria, Iran, Saudi Arabia, South Africa and Nigeria,” says the director of the National Authority for Remote Sensing and Space Science, Mohamed Adel Yehia.

“Nigeria,” he repeats, presumably for effect.

Clearly, it wasn’t meant to be this way. Egypt’s longtime standing as a regional pioneer should have seen it setting the pace for Middle Eastern and African space programs, not struggling to keep up. However, a lethal combination of political subterfuge and good old-fashioned Egyptian bureaucracy has kept the nation’s space program grounded.

Interest in developing a national space program was initially expressed during Gamal Abdel Nasser’s presidency, when shuttle and rocket technology was at the fore of global attention, if for all the wrong reasons. Given such widespread paranoia of space being used for offensive purposes, Egypt’s ambitious project did not go unnoticed. “Israel threatened any scientists or technicians who had been approached by the Egyptians to work on their space program,” claims Yehia. “Some were even murdered.”

The program collapsed, presumably to the delight of the Israelis, and remained defunct for a little over two decades, until the formation of the Council of Space Research in 1998, as part of the Higher Education and Scientific Research Ministry. The council set a roster of projects, all with fairly basic and “extremely peaceful” objectives, Yehia insists. “The first of these projects, EgyptSat I, was designed to take pictures of Earth, which could be used to improve farming and irrigation techniques.”

Despite its uncomplicated task, EgyptSat I proved to be as troublesome as the program’s history would suggest. Designed and built in collaboration with the Ukrainian government, and launched two years after its set 2005 date, the satellite was a source of increasing tension between the two countries, mainly due to its erratic behavior and constant delays in funding and planning on the Egyptian side.

“Funding was incredibly inconsistent,” recalls Yehia. “We would get approval for a three-year grant, for example, but we’d only receive one year’s worth from the government.”

Soon, the Egyptian program directors found themselves caught in a vicious cycle of setbacks, since, as Yehia says, “Ukrainian technology was advancing at a much faster rate than Egyptian technology,” which caused further delays. These long, forced intermissions rendered the many, expensive hours of training technicians were required to undergo entirely obsolete.

“It would take us such a long time to send our technicians back to the Ukraine, that when they’d finally get there, they would find the Ukrainians had advanced to another level altogether, which would mean we’d have to retrain them,” Yehia says. “We’d send them to train and they’d return and find that the program had been scrapped due to lack of funding. It was all very frustrating.”

At this very moment, EgyptSat I remains in orbit and inoperable, while the Egyptian-Ukrainian partnership has degenerated into a protracted legal battle.

But beyond sabotage attempts and bad break-ups, even Yehia can’t help but admit there’s a simpler, yet far more upsetting reason that led Egypt’s space program to be all but buried in the same graveyard as Toshka Project, and a long list of other failed national initiatives.

“We [Egyptians] don’t have any kind of system for projects like this,” Yehia explains. “We don’t plan, and there’s no evidence to suggest we’re capable of foresight. Ideas are thrown out there, and left to crash and burn.”

“I don’t know how to explain it,” he continues, “but there’s something in our method of doing things that almost guarantees the failure of these huge projects.

Yehia is likewise alarmed at the public’s lack of interest in outer space. “People are too busy thinking of trivial issues like bread, when they should be thinking about astronauts,” Yehia says, or, to put it more clearly, “Nobody here realizes that the future is space.”

“It used to be that the internationally-acknowledged law regarding space was that it belonged to us all; that no one country could stake a claim on space,” he says. However, as soon as the lucrative side of space exploration became apparent, Yehia says, “the laws changed and space now belongs to whoever gets there first. Right now, space is more crowded than downtown Cairo, and we’re sitting down here, doing absolutely nothing about it.”

Today, the Egyptian Space Program remains as frail as ever, stuck in limbo between a convoluted past and a bleak future. Yehia, who believes that early Israeli intervention irrevocably derailed the initiative, continues to worry over foreign interest in Egypt’s ghost of a space program.

“Egypt continues to suffer under massive amounts of pressure from Western nations determined to hold us back technologically,” he suggests. “It’s a war of information, and we’re being denied our right to progress.” One example he cites is a “space camera,” the plans for which were held back from any country not willing to pay for them. Capitalism or conspiracy? Yehia knows what he believes.

Ultimately, the revival of the Egyptian Space Program depends entirely on a change in policies.

“Only 0.1 percent of our yearly national budget is allocated for research, and that includes all types of research, not just scientific. Clearly, this is ludicrous,” Yehia fumes before mentioning that the Israeli government sets aside literally 50 times that amount for its own research-based grants. “There’s a reason why India is now ranked among the world’s great space powers. There’s a reason why Iran has been able to successfully build its own rockets. Their programs are properly funded by their governments.”

This deficiency isn’t likely to be addressed any time soon, though, as increased funding for scientific research is not one of the immediate demands of the ongoing revolution. “Before, the government would usually fail to deliver, but at least you could get them to agree to the idea of giving you money,” Yehia remembers. “Now, there isn’t even anyone to ask.”

Needless to say, Yehia is not optimistic the space program will ever fulfill the potential it once held. In the face of its many obstacles, keeping the space program alive is a battle he describes as “fighting windmills” ― an antiquated expression that, sadly, is more apt than it should be.

Related Articles

Back to top button