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Critics Deride Catalonia's Attempt To Create A Space Agency

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

Spain's northeast region of Catalonia is creating its own space agency. On March 20, the regional autonomous government, led by pro-independence parties, will launch the first of many satellites. They hope to create thousands of jobs and generate millions of dollars for the local economy, but there may be a political agenda as well. Here's Lucia Benavides.

LUCIA BENAVIDES, BYLINE: The first thing you see when you arrive at the Montsec Astronomical Park is a big, dark metal dome, a stark contrast to the green mountain surrounding the park. Behind that planetarium are smaller white domes housing various telescopes. Further up the mountain is the Montsec Observatory, where scientists monitor satellites and weather patterns. Pep Colome is the director there.

PEP COLOME: This observatory was conceived as an astronomical observatory, but that was extended as a ground station for the communication with nanosatellites.

BENAVIDES: Those are small satellites, about the size of a shoebox. He says both the park and the observatory are the result of an $8 million investment by the Catalan government in the early 2000s, an attempt to incentivize the local space industry. Now Catalonia wants to go even further by creating its own space agency and invest another $21 million over the next four years.

COLOME: So that's an opportunity to create, to make a strong push to the sector.

BENAVIDES: When the Catalan government made the announcement last October, some people criticized the timing, saying the region is still recovering from the economic hit of the coronavirus pandemic. But David Ferrer, secretary of the Catalan government's Ministry of Digital Policies, says it's important to invest in the future.

DAVID FERRER: (Non-English language spoken).

BENAVIDES: Ferrer says the so-called agency won't be what most people imagine. They chose the term because, he says, it was easier to understand. In other words, Catalonia won't be sending astronauts to space or a robot to Mars. Instead, they will be sending nanosatellites on international rocket launches to establish communication networks and to monitor weather and climate changes. The agency is still not officially registered. It needs final approval from the Catalan government. But the idea, Ferrer says, is for Catalonia to become a producer as well as a consumer of digital technology. The region is already home to various research centers and dozens of companies in the space industry, and Ferret hopes that number will double.

FERRER: (Non-English language spoken).

BENAVIDES: Catalonia would coordinate industry and research, says Ferrer, and provide funding for new projects. Ultimately, he says, the project will generate economic growth and development. But Pierre Lionnet from Eurospace, the trade association of Europe's space industry, says none of this makes economic sense.

PIERRE LIONNET: Space is not giving you a lot of return in terms of job creation.

BENAVIDES: Lionnet says there's no need for Catalonia to have a separate space agency when Spain is already part of the European Space Agency. He says these types of projects are typical of emerging countries hoping to position themselves on the international stage.

LIONNET: And then you can say, I am a space agency. I am like NASA. I am important. But having a real space agency with a real space program is a completely other story.

BENAVIDES: He says this feels like just another way for Catalonia to differentiate itself from the rest of Spain.

For NPR News, I'm Lucia Benavides in Barcelona.

(SOUNDBITE OF EVOCATIV'S "INTERLUDE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.