Back in March, Spain became the latest country to get its own space agency, when the nation’s government passed Royal Decree 158/2023, approving the bylaws of the Spanish Space Agency, or Agencia Espacial Española (AEE).

This important milestone marked Spain’s entry into the long list of countries that play a central role for managing, coordinating and, most importantly, promoting and driving forward their own national space efforts. Given the advantages that having such a structure brings to countries, the Spanish industrial community in particular had been advocating for the establishment of a federal space agency for quite some time.

The creation of the agency had been a long time coming, as several governmental bodies in Spain had for years stepped into and managed the historical role that space agencies played over the years. In particular, other governmental agencies handled international relations and institutional representation in forums including the European Space Agency (ESA) — an agency of which Spain is a founding member — and bilateral partnerships with NASA.

So why establish an agency now if things have been going well for so long without one, or if Spain’s AEE will inherently be dwarfed by NASA and the broader ESA conglomerate? Is it really needed, or does it just create more bureaucratic red tape? Make no mistake — given the rapid growth and critical relevance of the commercial space industry and the significant role that space plays in myriad aspects of life today, creating the AEE was necessary, and should serve as a key tool for developing and growing Spain’s role in the space sector. However, it also needs to be coupled with a long-term national space strategy that is safeguarded from any shifts in the political landscape as well as legislation regulating the practical aspects of space-related businesses. These are tools that many countries with a space program are working with, and Spain should be no different.

Spain’s historic role in space

Spain has played a key role in space exploration from the start. Its participation in the first American space flights is well known, as is the key role Spanish antennas played when communicating with the astronauts on the Apollo missions, including receiving Armstrong’s first message from the Moon. The National Institute for Aerospace Technology (INTA) was founded in 1942, and in 1960 the country signed the first agreement with NASA for the Mercury missions, which received support from the Spanish antennae ground station in Maspalomas, Canary Islands. Subsequently part of the Ministry of Defence, in 1974 it launched Intasat, the first Spanish satellite, from California.

Spain is also a founding member of the ESA, which was established in 1975, but dates back to the signing of the European Space Research Organisation agreements in 1962. Spain has been extremely active in recent years, increasing the budget allocated to the ESA to around 300 million euros ($328 million) a year, which puts it in fifth place in terms of agency contributors. It’s this longstanding ESA membership that convinced many that Spain did not need to have its own national agency, even though many ESA member countries have agencies which, beyond participating in the ESA, defend their national interests and develop their own initiatives. In Spain, representation in ESA has historically been the responsibility of the Centre for Technological Development and Innovation (CDTI), an organization that reports to the Ministry of Science and which has been the driving force behind space-related industrial development.

The CDTI took over the duties of the 1963 National Space Research Commission, which was the first (and largely forgotten) Spanish space agency prior to its dissolution in 1986.

By the time the ESA was founded, eleven ministries in the Spanish government, including the CDTI, the INTA, the Directorate General of Civil Aviation, and the State Aviation Safety Agency, among others, had some involvement in the space industry. This crowding likely served as one of the historical obstacles preventing Spain from forming a dedicated space agency for so many decades.

Spain’s growing national space industry

Space industry endeavors in Spain now represent a highly significant portion of the country’s economy, considering the size of Spanish spacetech companies and the public budgets they receive. Many new startups joined the national ecosystem in recent years, with missions, projects, and initiatives popping up in every field. There are companies developing orbit launchers (still “unfinished business” in Spain), chemical and electrical propulsion systems, critical equipment for on space probes, satellites and constellations, with many participating in international projects. Others are  participating in first-rate science and research projects as well as several initiatives geared towards emerging fields like space mining, space agriculture, developing a cislunar economy, in addition to general participation in ESA, EUSPA, Artemis, and other programs. Spain now has a thriving space economy that is fuelling a wide range of companies.

This growth is illustrated by the different conventions and conferences now celebrated in Spain. Just a few years ago, Spanish participants had to seek out conferences almost exclusively beyond Spain’s borders.

Ultimately, the explosion of these Spanish aerospace companies has been one of the strongest driving forces behind the creation of the AEE. A broad economic sector called the Spanish Association of Defense, Security, Aeronautics and Space Technology Companies, had an overall turnover of 11.954 billion euros in 2021. In 2022 the space industry alone provided 1.065 billion euros in turnover and created 5,889 jobs, providing 0.9 percent of the national GDP with a productivity that is more than 2.5 times the country’s industrial average, all backed by an elite level of innovation and development.

Despite historical reluctance to create the AEE, it was the sector’s dynamic growth, repeated requests from stakeholders, that prompted a sudden change of heart.

Creating the AEE

Spain is a signatory of four international treaties on space law: the Outer Space Treaty, the Rescue Agreement, the Liability Convention, and the Registration Convention, the last of which was a United Nations agreement that  resulted in the approval of Spanish Royal Decree 278/1995, which created the national registry of space objects in Spain. Unlike most other countries, Spain is not a signatory to the Moon Agreement, and it only signed NASA’s Artemis Accords this past May. Spain’s domestic legal framework stems from the Order of 4 May 1968, still in force, which regulates the launching of spacecraft from national territory and serves as the legal basis for the test flights of launchers like PLD Space in Spain. This existing framework played a major role in the creation of the Spanish Space Agency.

PLD Space’s Miura 1 rocket lifted off from a Spanish government test site Oct. 7 (local time) on its first suborbital flight. Credit: PLD Space.

When developing the AEE, authorities leveraged a formula that involves centering both the new agency and space-related efforts in general around the concept of security. In the years leading up to the AEE, the National Security Council approved Order PCI/489/2019, which formalized their approval of the newly-published National Aerospace Security Strategy. This strategy announces, as a legal measure, the goal of creating the National Council for Space Aerospace Security, which was then established in March 2020 via Order PCM/218/2020.

Shortly afterwards, Royal Decree 1150/2021 approved the National Security Strategy 2021, which in turn established a framework for aerospace activities under the umbrella of national security.

In the face of a rapidly-growing space sector, it was this decree that argued that the creation of a Spanish Space Agency — and the establishment of a national policy for both public and private regulations — would help coordinate the myriad agencies responsible for space activities

The following year, Law 17/2022 authorized the creation of the Spanish Space Agency. The government set (and met) a one-year deadline to develop the AEE’s bylaws, which were approved this March through Royal Decree 158/2023.

The AEE today

While this is not the time nor place for an in-depth analysis of the bylaws, it is worth mentioning that the AEE is under the authority of the Ministry of Science and Innovation and the Ministry of Defence, with the former spearheading the agency. The AEE has a Governing Council, a Directorate General, and its first director is Miguel Belló. It also has a series of directorates including Security and Planning; Programmes and Industry; Science; Technology and Innovation; and Users, Services and Applications. In turn, it has created several departments and support committees as it seeks the involvement of all space-related organizations and agencies. That way, communication with the AEE guarantees that all the necessary information is available to those who need it, allowing the agency to fulfill its objectives, purposes, and responsibilities — including those relating to the promotion, development and coordination of domestic space activities, and the creation and execution of the National Space Strategy and the Space Act. Also relevant is the creation of a Space and Society Office, which is vital for providing general education on the benefits that space-related activities can bring to all citizens, not only to the companies and administrations directly involved.

The agency’s headquarters are based in Seville, which won against other Spanish cities that were vying to host the new headquarters. The winning bid included the relocation of practically all the administrative space-related staff in Spain, who had been based in Madrid — the former headquarters of various space-related ministries and home to much of the country’s space industry. 

By law, Spain has created the AEE without any increase in public spending. The new agency has been allocated an initial budget of 700 million euros per year, which was primarily drawn from funding for ESA participation, the CDTI, and INTA. However, it is expected that the AEE will receive higher budgets in the future for the development of its own programs outside those directly linked to the ESA. The task of financing space activity public and private alike is of utmost importance, and one of the agency’s roles should be to create mechanisms for making investment attractive and effective, either directly or through public-private partnerships — a model that is producing excellent results in several countries around the world, like the United States.

The ripple effect that a space agency has for a country is obvious. Since the AEE was founded, Spain has signed the Artemis Agreements, a space collaboration agreement with Mexico, and numerous contacts have been made at the institutional level, all thanks to  the clear advantage of having a direct, identified, and competent point of contact. 

I have no doubt that the AEE will increase Spain’s capacity for international and institutional representation, provide growing support for our industry and academia, and serve as a driving force for space-related efforts. With enormous challenges in the coming years, challenges in which our country’s participation will only grow. That makes the agency’s formation a big deal indeed.

Rafael Harillo is a Spanish space lawyer, CEO of Stardust Consulting, and a member of the board of AEDAE, the Spanish association of aerospace law.