Iran’s Launch Troubles (Is a Commercial Solution Possible?)

Iran’s Launch Troubles (Is a Commercial Solution Possible?)


It figures that this story gets posted to SpaceNews the day my post goes online: “Starship lookalike among China’s new human spaceflight concepts.” In one way, the story validates what I noted in my last analysis about China’s innovative copying practices of technologies. But, as we know from experiences with space entrepreneurs, a PowerPoint slide does not make for a serious effort and can be fact-free. Still, it’s funny to see the China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology (CALT) smash together so many different copies of space clip art–the Starship upper stage, the New Glenn first stage, and some other company’s rocket engine (unsure what engine that is, but it’s not a Raptor or a BE-4).

Maybe CALT didn’t think anyone would notice?

An Unexpected Lament

This next bit concerns a nation most of us in the U.S. don’t think about–unless it pertains to potential nuclear weapons and the launch delivery systems for those weapons–Iran. So, I certainly didn’t expect to see this quote in the news:

“The article praises the US for its regulatory framework and also the issuing of low-cost licenses to start-ups that can put systems into orbit.”

That quote comes from The Jerusalem Post in an article titled “How Iran’s satellite program faced setbacks under Rouhani.” Praise of a regulatory framework that is reactive, conservative, unfocused, and piecemeal (for starters) gives an idea of just how badly Iran’s government is fumbling its space initiatives. I’ve noted in the past that both North Korea’s and Iran’s efforts lately have verged on the comical and tragic. Their programs theoretically have the almighty government funding to tap into and despite that availability, neither has a reliable rocket for launching small satellites into orbit. Compare their efforts to the relatively successful new rockets from companies such as Rocket Lab and Virgin orbit. Those commercial companies have fewer resources but launch more reliably and frequently than Iran or North Korea.

That’s the crux of the problem for Iran, as the interviewee, Hossein Shahrabi Farahani, talks a bit about where the nation has stumbled with its space efforts. Iran had a head start in the space industry. Farahani notes that the country launched a rocket and successfully deployed a satellite. At the time, it was the ninth nation to do so. The space industry today is very different.

For example, there are more nations in space (90 as of January 2022, according to the Space Foundation). Many of those nations are operating cubesats or smallsats, a satellite size that Iran at this point wishes it could launch. That’s what Farahani indicates, and Iran’s lack of a successful launch history backs him up. He blames the previous Iranian administration for this lack of success primarily because of low budget allocations to the Iranian Space Agency (ISA), which may or may not be true. Based on Farahani’s interview and the dismal results of Iran’s civil rocket launch efforts, it appears that there is no semblance of a space program strategy for that nation.

Desiring to Be a Part of the Global Space Economy?

Farahani talks about the growth of the commercial space industry outside of Iran and appears to believe the country has missed out. He notes that the ISA wanted to “highlight” the role of commercial space but hasn’t done anything. However, Farahani believes Iran’s latest administration can help:

“We wrote letters to the President and conveyed our wishes, and the President's office wrote letters to the new Minister of Communications a day later, emphasizing the privatization of the space sector, but nothing has happened yet,” he says.

I am not familiar with Iran’s entrepreneurial culture as I thought the politics of that nation had wiped it out. But privatizing Iran’s current technology portfolio seems akin to privatizing the horse and buggy while every other nation is driving electric cars. For example, its Safir-2 rocket uses technology from North Korea’s Nodong, which was developed nearly 40 years ago (based on much older Soviet SCUD missiles). And that type of lineage is inherent in nearly every Iranian orbital rocket. That must change.

Sure, nations must start somewhere for space activities (the U.S. used old V-2s). But, is there anything from that obsolete technology portfolio, aside from knowledge and failure, that can help give Iran’s space entrepreneurs an edge? Maybe that’s where Iran can create opportunity, instead of repurposing what appear to be unreliable rockets or falling into the space public works project traps that have successfully lured ESA, JAXA, and NASA. But that’s a challenge for Iran.

Failure Is Always an Option?

Successfully grabbing onto opportunities, even if they are obvious, instead of choosing the traditional or military-support route is difficult for Iran. It needs to transform its space program (if that is even a priority), and planting the seeds for a commercial industry might help. Relying on antique technology is only the beginning, as transformation of any industry has many obstacles: ingrained beliefs; current political, military, and industry stakeholders; conflicting strategies: etc. Each one of those challenges are why Iran is not innovating but tinkering with 40+ year-old equipment. And now failing to even make that old equipment work.

To be clear, Iran has had some successes with its space program, likely a result of hard work from creative and intelligent Iranians improvising with old technology. The nation’s space agency has successfully launched and deployed a few satellites. In December of 2013, it successfully launched a monkey on a suborbital space flight. The monkey came back healthy. At that time, the agency noted the monkey’s space flight was part of a human space flight program, which had a goal of getting humans to space in 2024. But no progress has been made since then, as Iran hasn’t developed a rocket capable of safely transporting humans. Lately, most of the nation’s latest space efforts have been failures.

It’s not clear that the ISA is even a functional space agency anymore. At least one story floating around indicates that the space program was shut down about six years ago. At that time, according to that article, the reasons for shutting it down were: Iran’s financial straits and brain drain (those reasons can be applied to other Iranian sectors, too). But the ISA website remains active, and Iran has conducted several unsuccessful orbital launches since that article, including during December 2021. At the same time, money and talent continue to elude the Iranian space programs, which may be why the ISA is relying on old tech–it doesn’t have the resources to invent new rockets using current technology.

Second is the Iranian government's iron grip on what should be creative and explorative activities for space (which is why I was surprised there was a hint of entrepreneurial spirit in the article). Posted on the ISA’s website is a “Comprehensive Document of Aerospace Development.” That document was approved by the Supreme Council of the Cultural Revolution (SuCCR) and outlined why industries in Iran’s nearly non-existent space sector conduct their activities. The first reason (all are listed under “Chapter 2: Vision) is for national security, which would make sense if the ISA was a military branch (it theoretically isn’t). The second makes more sense–to cater to the world’s and Iran’s needs. But the third veers into politics and religion: space activities must be conducted per “Islamic-Iranian” culture and values. From there forward is a truly comprehensive list resulting from deeply ingrained beliefs and entrenched stakeholders.

It’s a long list.

History May Teach Us Something

But the point is, with that type of governmental micromanagement and “cultural” oversight, Iran can’t hope to become a dynamic space participant. One ongoing experiment of space industry micromanagement that seems to support that statement is Russia’s space industry. That nation also is experiencing financial challenges and brain drain, similarly and largely due to Russia’s governance.

Consider that Russia was once a premier space nation. Then the government started consolidating the various space industries (satellite manufacturers, rocket manufacturers, launch services, etc.) because it wanted industry participants to work within a centralized plan. As a result, Russia’s space industry is now surpassed by European space activities. If it weren’t for Arianespace’s OneWeb launches using the Soyuz rocket, Russia’s launch activities would be nearly on par with the annual launch pacing of India.

That, at least, is the abbreviated analysis of what’s going on with Russia’s space industry. An in-depth study, something affordable to nearly any nation, would likely reveal other more intriguing insights about Russia’s space sector participants’ inability to transform. Suppose Iran is serious about its space program (and it’s not clear that it is). In that case, it should look hard at not just Russia’s challenges but those of other nations as well, including nations operating satellites but maintaining no launch infrastructure. There’s a lot to learn, even though the ideologies driving some similar results are different.

However, it should be unsurprising to Farahani that the Minister of Communications has not done anything to help with the privatization of Iran’s space sector. If it had done so, that would be an official and public admission that the SuCCR was wrong, that its long lists of priorities and values for the nation’s aerospace sector is worse than useless–it’s getting in the way. It’s pushing away the only resource that matters–creative and intelligent people. Those people would help make it more than the latest Middle East crisis generator. But, based on its current space attempts, Iran’s focus is not on the future, but the past, which it uses as a leash–and not just for its commercial space industry.