Chinese and American interests vie for Kenyan spaceport

Kenya occupies prime spaceport real estate – but the country will have to navigate US-China competition to make its plans for a satellite launchpad a reality.


Image : 3D motion / Adobe Stock

Africa is seizing the opportunities offered by space technology. More than 20 African countries have established space programmes and at least 13 have developed satellites, according to the consultancy Space in Africa.

But Africa’s burgeoning space industry is viewed with suspicion in some quarters. Right-wing British tabloids often attempt to manufacture outrage with stories about recipients of UK development funding having the temerity to launch their own space programmes. Rose Croshier, policy fellow at the Center for Global Development, notes that critics seek to present a binary choice for countries in the Global South: either they combat hunger, or they splurge on vanity projects in space.

But, as she points out, satellite technology can directly contribute to development objectives. For example, satellite data can provide accurate crop forecasts that help people and governments prepare for food shortages. Satellites are also key to extending access to broadband internet. Investing in space infrastructure is “worth it” for Africa, Croshier insists, “as long these programmes are anchored to delivering a service to the civilian population”.

One of the next milestones will be to establish a spaceport, enabling African satellites to launch from African soil. This priority will become increasingly urgent in the coming years. Existing facilities around the world are under growing pressure due to ever-increasing demand. Satellite consultancy Euroconsult predicted in a report last December that the next decade will see 17,000 satellite launches, a fourfold increase on the previous 10 years.

Kenya’s advantage

Although South Africa leads the continent in building satellites, there are few signs that it is keen on a spaceport. Instead, it is Kenya that has a head start in the race to host the continent’s first major launch facility.

Mike Grace, CEO of US-based aerospace company Longshot Space Technology, says he first became interested in Kenya’s spaceport potential simply by opening the map. “I started looking at the world and I thought ‘first principles – if you were going to put a launch system for putting stuff into space somewhere, where would you want it?’”

“First, you’d want it near the equator – basically the rotation of the Earth functions like a sling,” says Grace. As the Earth’s rotational speed is highest at the equator, such a location ensures big savings on the amount of fuel required.

Both the US and the Soviet Union built their main spaceports as close to the equator as possible, in Florida and Kazakhstan respectively, for this reason. Additionally, satellites are generally launched in an easterly direction – again, to take advantage of the slingshot qualities offered by the Earth’s easterly rotation – and, where possible, over large bodies of water. This minimises the risk of damage should a rocket misfire during launch.

There are only a handful of places on Earth where the equator bisects an east-facing coastline. Kenya’s Indian Ocean seaboard, which lies just south of the equator, therefore represents prime spaceport real estate. This potential has been recognised since the early days of the space race. The Italian space programme actually established a facility on a former oil platform off the coast of Malindi in the 1960s that was occasionally used to launch small satellites over the following two decades.

That platform has since fallen into disrepair. But the Kenya Space Agency, formed in 2017, is now working to enable launches to take place from Kenya once again.

“One of the key elements in developing national space capability is looking at the potential of having a launch facility in Kenya,” says Hillary Kipkosgey, director-general of the KSA. He says the agency is working on a master plan for the space sector, along with a legislative framework to regulate launches from the country. With these elements in place, Kipkosgey estimates that satellites could be taking off from Kenya in the next five to 10 years.

A SpaceX rocket ready for launch at Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Cape Canaveral, Florida. (Photo: Handout / SPACEX / AFP)

Geopolitics a stumbling block

Kipkosgey tells African Business that the KSA is seeking to collaborate with other actors to make a Kenyan spaceport a reality.

“We are cognisant of the fact that that the capital to put up such a facility would be immense, and we may not have the resources as a nation to do that,” he says. One possibility is a revenue-sharing model, though Kipkosgey emphasises that the KSA is “still open to discussions on what model would work best for us”.

Longshot commissioned a report last year on the feasibility of a Kenyan spaceport. The report, authored by a team of Kenyan student engineering researchers, estimated that a facility in Kenya could eventually see up to 60 launches annually. Each launch would generate an estimated $8.9m in revenue.

But Grace says that Longshot has not been able to progress with plans for a launch site in Kenya – due in large part to regulations that govern US aerospace companies operating abroad. “My challenge in trying to build space infrastructure in Kenya,” he says, “is convincing the Americans – not the Kenyans.”

The US International Traffic in Arms Regulations require American companies to obtain an export license before cooperating on satellite technology with foreign countries. According to Grace, US authorities are “hesitant” to allow transfers of space technology to Kenya, “because they would be concerned the Kenyans could not defend it from the Chinese.”

The ironic result of this US reticence is that China itself may be poised to step in. Victor Mwongera, head of mechanical engineering at Kenyatta University, who advised the authors of the Kenya spaceport report, notes that China has “been making a significant investment in Kenya on the aerospace side”.

Mwongera says that China is “very keen” to work with Kenya. The Chinese, he notes, realise the country’s geographic advantages would allow a Kenyan spaceport to serve as an “efficient launch platform” to send more of its Long March rockets into orbit high above the Earth.

Kipkosgey would not be drawn on China’s future role. But Kenya has received “expressions of interest from around the world,” he says. “The good thing is that we have options from Europe – and other parts of the world.”

Whichever players ultimately seek to develop a spaceport in Kenya will also have to contend with Kenya’s domestic politics. Mwongera notes that the location of a launch facility will inevitably be contentious.

“From a purely technical aspect, the coast is the obvious answer,” he says. But a decision to opt for a site on the relatively developed coast, would “bring a whole host of political problems because there’ll be a lot of Kenyans who’ll be feeling that the coast keeps getting more and more development funding.”

African innovation in space

The advantages of Kenya as a spaceport location mean that there is a strong incentive for the KSA, commercial operators, and Kenyan aerospace professionals to work together to overcome the challenges. Mwongera notes that last year’s report examining a Kenyan spaceport generated considerable excitement and “changed the conversation in Kenya”.

Kipkosgey shares this enthusiasm, but underlines that patience is required.

“Of course, if we had the resources, this is something we would start immediately,” he says. “But we realised that in the space sector you cannot do it alone. It has to be a collaborative effort, it has to be a partnership. That is what makes sense.”

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