Building Technological Capability within Satellite Programs in Developing Countries

Dec. 1, 2011


Wood, D. & A. Weigel, “Building Technological Capability within Satellite Programs in Developing Countries.” Acta Astronautica, Vol 69, Issues 11-12, December 2011, p1110-1122,


This paper explores the process of building technological capability in government-led satellite programs within developing countries. The key message is that these satellite programs can learn useful lessons from literature in the international development community. These lessons are relevant to emerging satellite programs that leverage international partnerships in order to establish local capability to design, build and operate satellites. Countries with such programs include Algeria, Nigeria, Turkey, Malaysia and the United Arab Emirates. The paper first provides background knowledge about space activity in developing countries, and then explores the nuances of the lessons coming from the international development literature. Developing countries are concerned with satellite technology because satellites provide useful services in the areas of earth observation, communication, navigation and science. Most developing countries access satellite services through indirect means such as sharing data with foreign organizations. More countries, however, are seeking opportunities to develop satellite technology locally. There are objective, technically driven motivations for developing countries to invest in satellite technology, despite rich debate on this topic. The paper provides a framework to understand technical motivations for investment in satellite services, hardware, expertise and infrastructure in both short and long term. If a country decides to pursue such investments they face a common set of strategic decisions at the levels of their satellite program, their national context and their international relationships. Analysis of past projects shows that countries have chosen diverse strategies to address these strategic decisions and grow in technological capability. What is similar about the historical examples is that many countries choose to leverage international partnerships as part of their growth process. There are also historical examples from outside the space arena in which organizations have pursued technological capability. Scholars have analyzed these examples and developed insightful frameworks. The paper draws key concepts from this literature about the nature of development, technology, knowledge and organizational learning. These concepts are relevant to learning in new satellite programs, but the ideas must be applied cautiously because of the nature of satellite technology. The paper draws three major lessons from the international development literature regarding absorptive capacity, tacit knowledge and organizational learning; it synthesizes these lessons into a cohesive, original framework. The closing section proposes future work on a detailed study of technological learning in specific government satellite programs.

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