The Korea Aerospace Research Institute (KARI) announced on May 31, 2022, it is prepared to launch South Korea’s first lunar mission, in collaboration with NASA. The mission involves the launch of Danuri, a lunar orbiter, on August 3. Danuri will be carried by the US-produced SpaceX rocket Falcon 9, and enter lunar orbit on December 16. There, it will perform six missions over the following year.
The launch will mark a major victory for KARI, which has long advocated for rapid progress in South Korea’s space program, in the face of public skepticism over limited funding and technological capabilities. In 2007, KARI announced a “space technology development roadmap,” intended to strengthen its space program. The following nine years proved difficult, in the face of insufficient funding, as well as domestic political debate over the utility of the program. This changed in 2016, when KARI and NASA signed a Lunar Probe Implementation Agreement. According to this agreement, the two space agencies would collaborate to launch a lunar orbiter by 2018, and a moon lander at a later date. The orbiter was later delayed by four years. According to the agreement, South Korea will take on the primary responsibility for manufacturing and operating the lunar orbiter, while the United States will manufacture additional payloads, as well as provide communications support. NASA and KARI will also form a joint science team to carry out research using the data acquired from the orbiter mission.
The joint lunar mission is merely one example of NASA and KARI’s increased cooperation in recent years. In 2020, Youn-Soo Kim, principal researcher of KARI’s Satellite Application Division, took a year-long sabbatical from normal responsibilities at KARI. During this time, he visited NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, and collaborated with NASA scientists on NASA’s Earth Applied Disasters Program. In keeping with the spirit of this program, Kim strongly advocated stronger disaster preparedness collaboration between NASA and KARI, in line with KARI’s long tradition of international collaboration with foreign space agencies since it was established in 1989. In another recent example, steering groups led by scientists from NASA and KARI collaborated to study the utility of satellites in measuring global air quality.
Collaboration in space exploration has long served as an important way for the United States to achieve better relations with other Indo-Pacific partners. Currently, NASA is collaborating with the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), as well as the space agencies of South Korea, Australia, New Zealand, and several other countries, to launch the Artemis Program, which aims to land humans on the moon by 2025. In the future, as smaller space agencies such as KARI attain greater capacity to carry out lunar missions and even expeditions to other planets, the viability of inter-space agency collaboration will become increasingly appealing as a form of soft power diplomacy.
Devin Woods is a Research Intern at the East-West Center in Washington. He is an M.A. Candidate at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), studying International Relations with a functional concentration in Security, Strategy, and Statecraft, and a regional concentration in Asia.