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It’s said nature abhors a vacuum. The same is true of leadership. In the global space community, a government body is almost always a leading component of a nation’s growing space ecosystem. But what if it wasn’t?

In Ecuador today, there is growing momentum around space ecosystem development. To be sure, Ecuador has some history in space, beginning with the installation of a NASA satellite tracking station in 1957, which was handed over to the Ecuadorian government in 1982 and is run by the Ecuadorian Center for Remote Sensing (CLIRSEN). There have also been experimental cubesat attempts, as well as the establishment of the government-run Ecuadorian Space Institute (IEE) in 2012, as part of the Ministry of Defense.

The vision for IEE in some ways mirrored the ambitions of other growing national space ecosystems, such as by prioritizing a national satellite program, stimulating private sector opportunity, and building talent pipelines. Facing a range of national economic challenges, however, in 2018, the IEE was shut down, with some responsibilities shifted to military control under the Military Geographic Institute. Just as Ecuador was charging ahead with its space ecosystem, the IEE’s leadership position evaporated.

Enabling laws and regulations remain an important government function, and there are people in the Ecuadorian government who understand and promote the benefits of space ecosystem development. Indeed, in June, Ecuador signed the Artemis Accords, the 26th nation to do so. Ecuador’s ambassador to the United States Ivonne Baki said: “Signing the Artemis Accords sends a powerful message to the international community that the Ecuadorian government is committed to pursue cutting-edge efforts in technology and is open to innovation, investment, workforce development to promote sustainable growth, and international collaboration to help solve humanity’s greatest challenges.”

Yet, despite this important step, the mantel of Ecuadorian space progress is still being carried primarily by private sector and academic organizations. This presents a fascinating example of how a space ecosystem can be catalyzed and developed, and it raises a compelling question. What is motivating individuals and organizations to promote and develop the country’s future in space?

A rising tide raises all ships

With a population of about 18 million people, a GDP of around $106 billion, and a poverty rate near 30%, Ecuador is a developing nation. The oil and gas industry is mature, underpinning an industrial ecosystem that includes businesses, international cooperation, and scientific and engineering talent pipelines. Still, political stability, export trends, public health challenges, macroeconomic forces, and more challenge progress and growth across a variety of sectors.

“When is Ecuador going to be a developed nation,” asked Robert Aillon, founder and CEO of Leviathan Space Industries. “We have always been developing, but there is no timeline, no date. Nobody knows. Space is a tool for development.”

Aillon’s company is working to build a private spaceport in Ecuador. Given the geography, an equatorial spaceport offers valuable advantages for launches, such as lower fuel costs and time-to-orbit. Yet, the grander vision is not simply to host launch providers.

“We need to start thinking of space as something that can cross all industries, like tourism, finance, insurance and agriculture,” said Aillon. “If you build infrastructure, what do you need? You need an ecosystem and a workforce from which organizations can hire. Entrepreneurs can see opportunities to provide services. Talent pipelines grow. And then demand does too.”

Ecuador Minister of Foreign Affairs and Human Mobility Gustavo Manrique Miranda signs the Artemis Accords on June 21 at the Embassy of Ecuador in Washington. Ecuador was the 26th country to sign the Artemis Accords, which establish a set of principles to guide space exploration cooperation among nations participating in NASA’s Artemis program.

Herein is a shared private sector vision for Ecuador’s space ecosystem. By striving for space access, the benefits percolate throughout industries and sectors, driving not just space competitiveness but more broadly, national and economic development. It is tempting to liken this potential to the emerging capabilities of artificial intelligence and robotics. But space for Ecuador is even more important.

“It is quite different for the space industry and all the ecosystems related to it,” said Mauricio Robalino, who leads Caduceo Internacional, an international trade and development group. “Space will support the development of a whole new set of knowledge, productive hubs, international relations, new markets, and technological transfer. It will mean economic and industrial development, not only from the perspective of the innovation we could bring to the world, but mainly from the use and exploitation of our own resources.”

He cited energy, metallurgy, space research and development, medical investigation, biological diversity, and tourism as areas where the space ecosystem can deliver resources and possibilities for the country. This vision for a space ecosystem as a vehicle for development is born in part out of necessity.

“If we don’t contribute to the social and economic development of everyone in the country, our businesses are not going to grow,” said Dr. Claudia Tobar, director of outreach and innovation at Universidad San Francisco de Quito. “What is happening is the private sector is doing the job that the public sector can’t handle right now. It is training, investment, and building the infrastructure for everyone to grow and have opportunity they haven’t dreamed of. Somehow the [government] bureaucracy is so hard to run that the private sector is taking the matter into its own hands. Ecuador can be an example to the region for how opportunities can be given to everyone.”

Those opportunities emerge in the shape of career potential and secure employment, and they are also seen in education.

Invigorating talent pipelines

To a person, those who shared their perspectives for this article all noted the importance of a space ecosystem for the betterment of the Ecuadorian people. There are chronic challenges with poverty and access to workforce opportunities, and the state of the country’s education system is both a cause and a potential remedy.

Portions of the population living in rural areas may struggle to reach schools, which may also lack enough teachers or capacity to serve all students. K-12 public schooling can struggle for resources, and by Tobar’s view, education is focused on basic needs, with science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) being “a luxury.” There are also cultural expectations that differ along gender lines.

“For women, the scholarly year they reach is often 8th grade,” said Tobar. “They are not expected to go on to higher education. The challenge is changing the mindset and expectation that women and rural area students can dream. But to get there, we have to provide more access. We cannot let them dream and then not give them opportunities to participate.”

Tobar noted technical schools that offer a shorter program focused on preparing the student for a technical field related to space may help give more students access to education. This while overcoming challenges with capacity and funding for the country’s public and private schools.

Meanwhile, Ecuadorian public and private universities are respected institutions that are producing the engineers and other professionals in high demand across Ecuador’s industries. There are also important initiatives underway focused on enabling greater education and research opportunities related to space and other technical fields. For example, the private, nonprofit Ecuadorian Corporation for the Development of Research and the Academy (CEDIA) is a network of 46 higher education institutions promoting scientific collaboration.

“We have established collaborations with academic and space institutions, such as NASA and Copernicus, to foster the training and education of professionals in space technology,” said Dr. Juan Pablo Carvallo, CEDIA’s executive director. “In this regard, CEDIA has developed virtual and online training programs for teachers and researchers in space-related areas. These programs cover topics such as space mission planning, satellite telemetry and telecontrol, modeling and simulation of space systems, and space exploration.”

Another avenue for talent development is collaborating with institutions abroad. The MILO Space Science Institute led by Arizona State University recently began a new initiative to give Ecuadorian students access to space-focused education and experience, such as a hands-on Space Works Laboratory for university students.

“Space should be a topic to inspire people to go to university,” said Aillon, who also serves as the MILO ambassador in Ecuador. “We need people to get excited about a career that can lead to two paths, either joining the workforce or becoming an entrepreneur. This will benefit local non-space industries. Everyone benefits if you have more people working.”

Ultimately, just as a space ecosystem has the potential to impact and uplift all industries, it has the same transformative potential for education.

“The idea of preparing future generations for space is the perfect excuse to be more flexible in the way we are preparing students,” said Tobar. “There is so much we don’t know that will require creative thinking and problem solving. The challenge of preparing generations for the space economy is the perfect way to transform education.”

Peering at a bright horizon

It is not yet clear where all this space activity will take Ecuador. A private spaceport is possible, and if or when it is built, it will inevitably compete with other spaceports offering equatorial launches (e.g., the Alcântara Space Center in Brazil). Regional competition would be a boon for the space economy and create more access for the growing global launch market.

Meanwhile, there is evident value for Ecuador’s export-focused economy, with Earth observation and satellite data used to enhance oil and agricultural production. And cascading value from space activity supports growth in adjacent industries, as well as creates jobs. But longer term, where does Ecuador’s space journey lead?

“The general thinking is that space is a matter of developed countries and that we should not consider ourselves protagonists of its development,” said Robalino. “When we, as a society, come to realize that we need to become an important part of the global space ecosystem, the real opportunity will rise. This is a great chance for the people of Ecuador to prepare themselves and take advantage of the opportunity. Social scalability is possible. The sons and daughters of farm workers can start to have the opportunity to become engineers, financial advisors, business people and entrepreneurs. It is a definitive power shift for the people of Ecuador.”

Shelli Brunswick is Chief Operating Officer of Space Foundation and a former space acquisition and program management leader and Congressional liaison for the U.S. Air Force.

This article originally appeared in the July 2023 issue of SpaceNews magazine.

Shelli Brunswick is the chief operating officer of Space Foundation, Colorado Springs, Colorado.