Exclusive interview with Mrs. Ferencz Orsolya, Ministerial Commissioner for Space Research
Mrs. Ferencz Orsolya, Ministerial Commissioner for Space Research, talks about the major milestones of the Hungarian space industry and how activities in space will transform the future of the entire world.
Why is the space industry important and why can’t Hungary afford to neglect this area today?
The key question is whether any country today in the 21st century can afford not to engage in space activities. First, it is important to clarify the terms. Space activity is what humanity does in outer space, and this includes space exploration, which is the discovery of the new, and the space industry. At the same time, many services are a very important part of the space industry today. The cornerstones of humanity and the world economy today are the devices, systems and services that depend in part or in whole on the operation of space-based assets. We can thus say that space infrastructure is a critical infrastructure. Henceforth, no country can say that it is not part of this ecosystem.
For 75 years, Hungary has been an active participant in this ecosystem in international space activities. In honor of Tódor Kármán, the whole world calls the border of outer space the Kármán line, which is located 100 km above the earth’s surface.
Hungarian science and space research has already achieved a lot and so, of course, we want to participate in international space activities in the future as well.
Where does Hungarian space research stand today and what have been the major milestones of the last decade?
In 1946, the Americans were the first in the world to successfully measure the distance between the Moon and the Earth using radar signals, followed by the Hungarians. It should be added that the measuring system set up by Zoltán Bay, Károly Simonyi and their team was completed earlier, but it was destroyed in World War II. We ended up second because we had to rebuild these assets.
The next major event took place at the time of Interkosmos, when the former socialist countries became involved in research of the Soviet Union. The year 1980 is an important year for us, as Hungary was the 7th country in the world to give an astronaut, Bertalan Farkas, to the international community. In the same year, the Apollo-Soyuz program showed that even during the Cold War, all countries could and must work together.
The next great event was when the European Space Agency (ESA) invited Hungary to become a member. It is unfortunate that we were the last in the region to join ESA, in 2015.
In 2018, when the area of “space” was transferred to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, a change took place. With the active help, broad vision and experience of our diplomats, we have made significant progress.
To what extent and in what form will the space industry transform the “civilian” sectors in the coming years?
The space industry is now everywhere. Communication, global telecommunications and broadcasting, for example, were the basis for preventing the world economy from collapsing during the pandemic.
Satellite navigation plays a major role in traffic management, air traffic control, maritime or land transport. In the Galileo Green Lane project developed by the European GNSS Agency (GSA) in collaboration with the European Commission, Hungary introduced and optimized freight transport based on satellite data for the first time as a pilot program.
Earth observation is present in countless areas, such as precision agriculture or even disaster management, including monitoring waterways or forest fires. During forest fires in the Amazon, for example, the Brazilian space agency provided a lot of data on what was going on. Frontex, for example, also uses space technology to manage migration.
The background science of total climate change is also based on space activity. Today, we are actively using data from satellite earth observation, from the composition of the atmosphere to the temperature of the sea.
We see that the earth is a finite system, and the raw materials found here will run out after a while. Electromobility is an important endeavor, but batteries need special materials, and they are limited on Earth. So now, we are talking about space mining. Last but not least, another important question is the use of the moon.
The space industry is present in all areas. ESA estimates that at least 15 percent of the EU’s total economy is now directly or indirectly dependent on outer space, but that number will grow radically in the future.
What budget will be available from the central budget for the development of Hungarian space research and space activities in the next five years? What will this be enough for and what can be the expected results?
Budgeting takes place annually, but we already see that when the area was taken over by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, it increased its role by creating a ministerial department and commissioner. In 2018, we had just over HUF 2 billion at our disposal, which was a small amount. It was particularly small when we compared it to the budgets of the V4 countries or Romania.
Now, almost HUF 10 billion of budget resources are available in 2021, and at the latest ESA Ministerial Conference in Seville in 2019, Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade Péter Szijjártó announced a radical increase of Hungarian contributions to the ESA.
This is important because there is a mandatory membership fee in ESA, and, in addition, we can enter optional programs. Reimbursements will be made to the space sectors of each country, at which point space operators in each country will have the opportunity to join ESA’s major missions. We have significantly increased and quadrupled our payments here. In 2021, we made a payment of EUR 20.5 million. It was a very serious step taken very quickly, and both the ESA and domestic players reacted very positively. The number of applicants has been growing ever since, and our goal is clearly to increase our success rate.
What is the role of the European Union in space technology developments and in which areas can the CEE region outperform America, China and Russia?
The space market is a global market. The USA is still the largest player, and Russia is also devoting serious resources to this. In recent years, two other powerful countries, China and India, have appeared alongside them. In this competition, European countries together are significant players too.
Hungary can achieve its goals in international cooperation. It was very positive that the field was transferred to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, which can successfully move the issue forward.
Space is not just about money. Innovation is very important here. In what Hungary is good at, we must strive to be a world leader and unavoidable. For example, one of the best radiation dosimeters in the world, which is still part of the space station, is a Hungarian development. The system was invited to be a part of NASA’s Orion program as well as the Lunar Gateway.
In the next 5 years, ESA will manage a record amount of EUR 14.38 billion. Hungary will contribute EUR 97 million, only 0.7 percent, to the total budget. What can we expect in return from ESA in the coming years?
Three years ago, we paid the smallest amount to ESA; this has improved since then. What matters here, however, is not only how much we pay in, but also how much and at what rate we are paid back. The next ESA Ministerial Conference will be in 2022, when countries will make future commitments.
It can be said that ESA sees the history of the 21st century being written in space. The budget that was approved by the countries in 2019 in Seville was historic. It has also increased the amount spent on space programs and is launching space-related programs in other areas as well. The One country-One vote principle, of course, poses challenges to the organization, as China or India can implement their own space program with less bureaucracy.
At the same time, diversity and versatility are real strengths of ESA, where every country brings its best to the table.
What should we know about the Hungarian National Space Strategy and what are its most important elements?
The Hungarian National Space Strategy has been completed and is currently being discussed by the government. The complexity and structure of our Space Strategy are in line with the expected directions of the European Union and ESA, but we also asked the opinion of an MIT professor.
We had to measure the whole sector and set out the areas where we have room for improvement. One example is the signing of bilateral cooperations, beyond the multilateral cooperation with the European Space Agency. We have seven such contracts, one of which is with Virgin Galactic. However, we also have agreements with Israel, Brazil, Turkey, Singapore, France and Portugal, and further cooperation agreements are underway, as this is a global competition and a global market. The biggest focus, 75 percent of our budget, is, of course, on ESA, but we do not want the opportunities for Hungary to rely on just one organization.
Our higher education is another important area. It is very competitive, for example, our education program at Eötvös Loránd University ranks 155th in the world. At the same time, we want to better coordinate all space-related disciplines and training with the Ministry of Innovation and Technology.
Is it a goal to establish a Hungarian Space Agency, and if yes, what will be its task? What are the long-term goals of Department of Space Research and Space Activities?
It is a very important and long-term goal to establish this field as an independent agency, but there are many options here. Some countries have their own space agency, others do not.
In Hungary, the most important thing was to reorganize and modernize space activities, as it has not necessarily received sufficient attention in the last three decades. This has changed a lot in the last three years thanks to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade.
It would not be a good idea to move the department responsible for space research and space activities out of the Ministry. No matter how this field develops in the future, the importance and economic weight of the space industry will further increase.
It is an important task for the coming years to find a way under the Hungarian state administration to continue to represent this area with sufficient emphasis in the future. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade will certainly have many tasks going forward concerning this work.