Erdoğan’s outlandish promises reach outer space

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Cevheri Güven

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has announced the “National Space Program,” a 10-item list that includes landing a shuttle on the moon and sending the first Turkish astronaut to outer space. The Turkish Space Agency (TUA), the government body for national aerospace research, has a budget of only $5.4 million, which brings up the question of how these ambitious projects can be funded.

Extravagant pledges by Erdoğan are commonplace during election campaigns or political or economic deadlocks. Many of them have reached their announced deadlines but are not even remembered anymore.

The most sensational was the Kanal İstanbul project, a plan to build an artificial sea-level waterway bisecting the European side of İstanbul to connect the Black Sea with the Sea of Marmara and the Mediterranean in order to relieve shipping traffic through the Bosporus. Announced to the public in 2010 as the “crazy project,” no concrete action has been taken thus far towards its realization.

In 2015 the government unveiled plans to develop and manufacture the country’s first domestic passenger plane, 10 of which were scheduled to take off in 2019. The ceremony even featured a symbolic plane marked for October 29, 2019, representing the anniversary of the proclamation of the republic.

Another piece of good news was the entirely homemade automobile that was supposed to take to the roads first in 2012, then in 2016. Despite the introduction of prototypes, the vehicle never saw the light of day. Later on, the government announced that they had scuttled their plans for an internal combustion engine and decided to opt for an electric one instead. Although the electric cars were to be for sale by 2021, the factory is still under construction.

Electric tractors were another promise where Erdoğan took a picture in front of a prototype and said it would be available to farmers in 2019. After the local elections of March 2019, it was never brought up again.

The list goes on with domestic fighter jets, homegrown 5G technology and several others that Erdoğan government has never realized. The National Space Program was a subject of ridicule as much as it was the object of criticism.

Engin Altay, the parliamentary group leader for the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), said Erdoğan’s program does not match the budget allocated. “With that kind of money, you can only climb Mount Everest,” Altay said. While the Turkish Space Agency received only $5.4 million from the 2021 budget, it is possible to increase its funding in line with new objectives.

Opposition skeptical

CHP spokesperson Faik Öztrak recalled the remarks of Erdoğan’s son-in-law Berat Albayrak, who during the 2019 local elections had said, “We have an electorate who would believe it if the president vowed to build a four-lane highway to the moon.”

“Albayrak is gone, but his ideas live on,” Öztrak said.

Albayrak was finance minister until November 2020, when he stepped down and disappeared after tensions with Erdoğan.

Possible cooperation with Russia

Turkey could work with Russia on the announced program to send a Turkish astronaut to the International Space Station (ISS). Russia demands over $80 million to send an astronaut to the ISS by way of a Soyuz launch vehicle, nearly 14 times Turkey’s budget for aerospace research.

Speaking to Russian news agency TASS, Turkish Space Agency President Hüseyin Yıldırım said: “It is highly possible that we use the Soyuz, which is a reliable vehicle. But we need to make the decision first.”

Dmitri Rogozin, an executive with the Russian federal space corporation Roscosmos, gave an interview in 2018 to Turkey’s state-run Anadolu news agency in which he said Russia was prepared to train Turkish astronauts and launch them to the ISS from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan in 2023. Many of Erdoğan’s projects have been scheduled according to the year 2023, Turkey’s centennial anniversary.

Erdoğan has also been developing a relationship with Elon Musk, the chief designer of SpaceX. The two recently had a phone call about Turkey’s space program. Back in 2017, Musk had paid a visit to Erdoğan in Turkey and signed a $500 million deal involving the launch of space satellites that Turkey had manufactured by Airbus.

Turksat 5A, the last satellite Turkey sent into orbit, was launched by SpaceX with a Falcon 9 rocket on Jan. 8 from Cape Canaveral in Florida.

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