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Another astronaut, more private investment, and a national space agency could all be in the cards for Hungarian space research. Ministerial Commissioner for Space Research Orsolya Ferencz and project leader of the development of Hungarian satellites MASAT-1 and ATL-1 András Gschwindt spoke of where Hungarian space exploration has been, where it is now, and where it might be going, at an online event on Wednesday organized by Hungary Today’s publisher, the Friends of Hungary Foundation, and Future Hungary. The event entitled ‘SpACE Hungary: The Future of Hungarian Space Research’ was hosted by Future Hungary President Róbert Panyi.

An expansive but unstable past

Discussing the more than 70-year-old history of Hungarian space exploration, starting with the first successful European moon-radar experiment in 1946, Orsolya Ferencz pointed out that this year is the 40th anniversary of the first time a Hungarian went to space. Bertalan Farkas left Earth aboard the Soyuz-36 spaceship in May 1980 as part of the USSR’s famous Intercosmos program.

András Gschwindt was already a leading figure in Hungarian space research at the time, bearing witness to most of its long history. He recalled first receiving substantial funding following the establishment of a new space research group in 1970, and being a part of Intercosmos. Under the aegis of this program, by 1980, Hungarian scientists had designed various subsystems for 16 satellites.

While the winds of political change blew strong in the 80s, there was little activity in the field. In the professor’s words, there was a “hole in space” as Hungary waited to become involved with the European Space Agency (ESA). Although activity started picking up after the fall of the USSR, it was not quite the same. As part of a push by researchers to kickstart real progress, the project to send the first Hungarian satellite to space was started in 2006 under Gschwindt’s leadership, and in 2012, the MASAT-1 was launched into orbit.

Ferencz mentioned that Hungary finally joined the European Space Agency (ESA) in 2015, catching up with the times.

On the right trajectory

As it is with more things than one would care to admit, the central issue in space research is money. Noting this, Ferencz explained that since space exploration was moved under the purview of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade in 2018, funding and therefore activity has increased dramatically.

The following year, the government allocated HUF 2.3 billion (EUR 6.3 million) to space research, and Ferencz highlighted that at the beginning of this year it was decided that an additional HUF 1 billion (Eur 2.7 million) would be granted. The government also doubled the funds going to the ESA.

Why was this done? Ferencz said that the space industry is a strategic priority for the country because it is set to become a key sector in the 21st century. She said it may be especially important right now because it is crisis resistant. The outlook for the future of the space industry is stellar, as it is on its way to become an ever-greater part of the world economy, while its profit margins are typically astronomical. The government wants Hungary to take advantage of this. Moreover, since it is the basis for global telecommunications, the sector was not phased by the pandemic, and is therefore a part of Hungary’s road to recovery and growth.

In order to capitalize on opportunities in the industry, Ferencz emphasized that it is essential to establish a space heritage. Hungarians have to be successful in missions and have a proven track record of fruitfully applying technological and scientific knowledge in space in order for Hungary to be able to enter the space market.

Increasing ESA contributions was necessary because it makes it possible for Hungarian researchers and companies to take part in almost all ESA projects. For instance, they can now participate optional programs focusing on navigation, telecommunications, space weather, and protecting the Earth from asteroids.

This allows Hungary to leverage its proven expertise in many fields of science and engineering connected to space exploration, such as electronics, data transmission and reception, electromagnetic radiation systems, life sciences, medical science, pharmacology, and chemistry, into building a more robust space heritage.

Hungarian teams are currently participating in ESA’s Juice mission to Jupiter, and in many of the agency’s lunar programs, an area of focus at the moment.

The people behind the machines

This plan is all well and good, but none of it works without the scientists and engineers themselves. Gschwindt believes that in this area, education, motivation are key.

If we are looking for the future of Hungarian space, the question is whether we can motivate young people.”

First, introduction to space and its wonders has to start early. Gschwindt notes that students seem to be very interested in the topic before middle school, then lose interest. It would be paramount to maintain fascination. Ferencz confirmed that the government would like to integrate space exploration into the science curriculum as part of other subjects.

Second, interest has to be maintained once students choose to focus on space. To do this, the best way Gschwindt has learned in his half a century as an educator is what he calls the American one; making not just parts of a satellite, but the entire thing. He found that the best method of keeping youth motivated and interested in space work is to have them learn and take part in the entire process of making a satellite instead of simply designing subsystems.

In this regard, Hungarian space research has finally reached two milestones. They can now make cheaper, smaller satellites which are functionally not inferior to larger counterparts. The most recent Hungarian satellite, ATL-1, was only 5cm x 5 cm x 10cm. They can also finish a project in just two years. This means that the efficiency and quality of space education are much higher, as students can see the entire process in a short span of time.

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Despite all this, the professor is also not sure whether all current students of space exploration in Hungary will be able to find jobs in the industry at home. This brings us to the issue of brain drain.

Escape velocity

The question of brain drain (the migration of valuable, highly-educated workers) is a difficult issue for all countries which are not as strong economically, Ferencz said in reply to a question by the audience. She went on to explain that if Hungary can offer good education and then channel people into good careers, brain drain can be slowed. She acknowledged that this is a real problem in this sector, and can only be solved if real opportunities are created at home.

She also underscored that studying abroad in order to deepen one’s knowledge and widen one’s worldview is a really good thing, but said that it is a problem for Hungary if young scientists do not want to return. She said the government must build bridges via which youth can come home.

Gschwindt noted that the private sector has to come into its own in order to truly slow brain drain. Private money was already dominant in recent successes such as ATL-1, and if Hungary can increase private (as well as public) spending on space, it can offer scientists and engineers positions and compensation commensurate with their work.

Fuel for growth

So, how important will private companies be in the coming years? According to both experts, very. Ferencz believes in a hybrid model for space research funding; both public and private money is necessary, she says. Private enterprises are an important part of a good ecosystem, but at the same time, government views and strategy have to be taken into account in the big picture. Therefore, some of the financing tools have to be left to the government so that they can influence the direction of development, while private interests must drive growth. To Ferencz, this appears to be a working model in the US, and she hopes it can be in Hungary too. There are already initiatives which work on the basis of such a hybrid model.

Gschwindt agreed with this assessment, pointing to the fact that recent developments were made either partly or entirely from private money. He noted that private administration is much faster and simpler than public, so it is easier to get projects off the ground, to make decisions, and show results. The government will soon announce a new investment structure for space research with some help from the banking sector, and private investors are encouraged to participate.

When asked if there was need for a central organization to keep the reins in its hands, mediating between private and public interest and directing efforts, commissioner Ferencz responded with great conviction:

A national space agency is the future.”

She then qualified this answer by saying that there should be a new central organization to oversee Hungarian space exploration, which would likely be a national space agency.

To infinity and beyond

According to the two experts, beyond the question of private and public funds, the future of Hungarian space research is in a mix of pan-European and bilateral cooperation. While the country is taking an ever more active role in the ESA, it has also recently signed memorandums of understanding regarding combined efforts in space research with seven parties, including Virgin Galactic, France, and Brazil.

Hungary has also begun a strategic cooperation with the Singaporean Office of Space Technology, a key global player in the field. This is a milestone for the country. Ferencz also expressed the nation’s willingness to partner with other nations active in space research, such as South Africa, South Korea, and Italy.

Overall, Hungary appears to look forward to a bright future in space. The experts believe we can expect the most ground-breaking research in antennas, radiation measurement and shielding, and platform elements. A second Hungarian scientific astronaut might also soon go to space.

In her closing remarks, the commissioner encouraged everyone who has interest in it to join the space industry, not just scientists, because it will be one of the most important sectors of the century.

Featured photo illustration by Péter Komka/MTI