Argentina’s Steady And Visionary Path To Space Is An Inspiring Tale

Monica Hernandez

Spacefaring & quantum futures. Research conducted & personal views expressed are my own.

Which path is required for us to reach new worlds? I like to take inspiration often from the field of physics. 

In its search for the laws of nature and its inquiry of the universe, physics has profound philosophical implications as well. Fermat’s principle shows us that light follows the path of the least time when it travels between two points. 

This thought-provoking principle is a worthy metaphor for Argentina’s space history. Similar to how light travels, some of the secret ingredients to the successes in Argentina’s decades-long space industry include a vision to imagine better futures and the ability to bootstrap in the least amount of time. 

Argentina visualized its role in space early in its history. The Sociedad Argentina Interplanetaria – SAI (Argentinean Interplanetary Society) was formed in 1949 with the notable leadership of electro-mechanical engineer Teófilo Melchor Tabanera. 

SAI was the country’s first space enthusiast organization. By way of comparison, the oldest advocacy organization in the world for space research, travel, and exploration dates to 1933 in London. Argentina’s SAI would be the only organization from the Latin American region at the foundation of the International Astronautical Federation – IAF . 

Shortly after the Apollo Lunar landing in 1969, the IAF’S 20th International Astronautical Congress was conducted in Mar del Plata, Argentina. 

Historical records document that key international figures from the United States and the Soviet Union attended the congress. By that time, Argentina was also the only country in Latin America and the elite few in the world, which had successfully sent animals to space. https://www.youtube.com/embed/c1afZX2nA2w

Historical documentary. Spaceflight of the Argentine monkey Juan. 1969. 

Argentina’s modern space program is accompanied by high-profile successes as well. This past August 2020, Argentina’s national space agency, the Comisión Nacional de Actividades Espaciales – CONAE (National Space Activities Commission) launched SAOCOM 1B onboard the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. This launch generated momentum and excitement. For the first time since 1969, a satellite launched from Cape Canaveral with an orbital trajectory over the Earth’s poles. CONAE launched the sister satellite, SAOCOM 1A, onboard the SpaceX Falcon 9 in October 2018 from the Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.https://www.youtube.com/embed/lXgLyCYuYA4

SAOCOM 1B Launch and Landing. SpaceX. August 2020. 

The Commercial Rockets To Reach LEO Efficiently and Sustainably

Despite a turbulent history of economic depression, hyperinflation, debt, and a grim military dictatorship (1976 – 1983), Argentina’s space-minded pioneers have pressed ahead. In fact, Argentina has made steady progress in its aspirations for space for almost eight decades. This long history is converging with the rise of audacious space entrepreneurs. 

LIA Aerospace is currently the first space startup in Argentina and in Latin America that focuses on the design, production, testing, and launching of reusable small-sat launch vehicles. LIA stands for Laboratorio de Investigaciones Aeroespaciales (Laboratory of Aerospace Research). Dan Etenberg and Federico Germán set up LIA Aerospace in Buenos Aires in 2019. Born and raised in Buenos Aires, both have decades of experience in propulsion systems. Some of their first rockets and engineering endeavors date to their teenage years. The seeds for LIA Aerospace started in 2015 from a shared passion for rocketry.

Dan and Federico foresee the development of two main reusable launch vehicles at LIA Aerospace to service the satellite market. The satellite launch market is booming. Some recent studies report an industry valuation of US$ 2.4 billion. A compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 2.77% has been estimated in this study’s forecast period from 2021 to 2025. 

Named after the highest point in the sky above an observer, the Zenit (Zenith) launch vehicle would fulfill the first stage company objectives for the brief suborbital flight services. The second stage company objectives envision the Procyon launcher. Named after one of the brightest stars in our night sky, Procyon would reach low Earth orbit – LEO with payloads up to 150 kg. LIA Aerospace may liaison with another prominent Argentine space company Satellogic for a potential first payload of nano-satellites. Satellogic reported a recent round of investment of US$ 50 million

The vision at LIA Aerospace is ambitious in many respects. Stakes are high. It takes uncanny levels of grit and resilience to be a successful rocket entrepreneur. The complexity and extended time frame needed to design, develop, test, and launch hardware are notable. I also know this from personal experience. I worked in a space company that develops advanced in-space electric plasma propulsion technology

LIA Aerospace also enters a market with established launchers, which have been in business for long. There is also the remarkable efficiency of new and emerging players such as in India. So why start the first launch and logistics space company in Latin America? The answer, of course, is why not?! These established launchers were once just startups as well. 

I had the opportunity to speak with both Dan and Federico. Their exciting story had been generating lots of media coverage in Argentina’s top Spanish-speaking media outlets and blogs. 

Dan Etenberg. Federico Germán. Founders of LIA Aerospace. December 2020.

I wanted to ask more in-depth questions about the specific innovations in their business. Beyond the structural and financial considerations as the first space logistics startup in Latin America, LIA Aerospace wants to set itself apart with an environmentally-conscious approach to its business. 

This business approach is interesting given the carbon-footprint of rocket emissions. With every rocket launch, soot (black carbon), gases, and particles, especially from the kerosene-fueled engines, accumulate in the middle and upper atmosphere. Gases and particles can get trapped for several years in the stratosphere. This area is quite sensitive as it has the ozone layer. Trapped combustion residue absorbs sunlight and heat. This may change patterns in temperature and radiative equilibrium. It may also contribute to further depletion of the ozone layer.

Scientists and engineers have previously warned us of the lack of attention to the rise in rocket emissions. The conversation is sorely missing from major regulatory, policy, and international frameworks. The Montreal Protocol does not expand sufficiently enough the topic of rocket emissions either. The relatively localized frequency of launches just a few decades ago might explain this absence. However, the topic of the carbon footprint of launchers will increasingly take center stage. Rocket launches nowadays average 100+ per year. This average is expected to grow given the projections of the global space economy. 

LIA Aerospace seeks to be Earth-friendly from the outset. It uses hydrogen peroxide as the oxidizing agent (chemical required to burn) in the propellant (rocket fuel). This non-cryogenic (not requiring extremely low temperatures) liquid alternative to the more commonly-used propellants is suitable for flights to LEO. It also keeps costs down given its ease of production. The historical usage of hydrogen peroxide as rocket propellant has been widely documented. Some of the advantages of its use relate to the fact that it is non-reactive with the atmosphere, non-toxic to humans, and its high density makes it suitable to store in smaller tanks. This advantage is relevant in comparison to the storage and equipment needs of the commonly-used cryogenic fuels like liquid oxygen. 


Dan breaks it down for me: 

“We’re seeing the need to use fuels more consciously and the importance of cleaner energies… By using hydrogen peroxide with kerosene or biodiesel, we achieve a 60% decrease in greenhouse emissions from rocket combustion. This positions LIA Aerospace as a green space company. We intend to use a form of biodiesel that is similar to kerosene but that has less of a carbon footprint…”

Argentina ranks as one of the top exporters of biodiesel in the world. Biodiesel is an alternative to fossil fuel. It is typically generated from plants, animals, and even sewage waste. Argentina is also the top supplier of soybean oil used to produce biodiesel. 

Dan highlights the vision and value proposition of being environment-friendly. Several investment funds use environmental, social, and governance – ESG criteria to evaluate the companies they chose to invest in. Dan explains:

“In a few decades, launchers that are not reusable will be obsolete. We start from the outset thinking of reliability and reusability. For the first stage of R&D, we expect to be able to re-use our rockets up to 10 or 15 times. Also being ESG – compliant, means becoming a company aligned with the economic interests, as well as those of humanity 50 years from now. This is important because the future will increasingly demand this. We are aligning LIA Aerospace with this path. This will also help us in the rounds of investments…”

Space debris is another sore point in the global conversations in the space industry.  LIA Aerospace already anticipates this in its approach to launch vehicles. Federico adds: 

“We contemplate that LIA Aerospace will de-orbit the second stage to minimize space debris.” 

To date, LIA Aerospace has completed several key milestones. Five rocket engines have been designed, built, and tested with different liquid fuel injector configurations. The results from these initial milestones will improve subsequent engine iterations. 

Dan and Federico also mentioned their progress towards a patent in Argentina, and a foreseeable future in the United Kingdom, for their custom formulations of a hypergolic liquid propellant with hydrogen peroxide.  A hypergolic propellant does not require an ignition source because it ignites automatically when the fuel and oxidizer mix. This custom configuration would allow LIA Aerospace rockets to efficiently re-ignite in space and conduct frequent burns to position payloads into different orbits around celestial objects (orbit insertion).

It takes a particular fortitude to be a successful entrepreneur in the space industry. It requires uncanny levels of resilience and grit to start a rocket company in Latin America. In addition to personal capital, LIA Aerospace has secured some initial angel investing, seed loans, and grants from additional government programs in Argentina such as Fondo Semilla and IncuBAte

Given its status as newcomer in Argentina’s space economy, LIA Aerospace faces new challenges. Federico explains: 

“There’s a lot of state support and programs for local universities in Argentina… But there’s also the issue that scientific laws were established to oversee R&D for space technologies in government institutions , and not necessarily for new private companies that develop space technologies. As a space logistics startup, we’re running into hitches that need to be addressed given the lack of clear regulatory and legal frameworks.” 

I asked them about their perspectives of the broader space startup ecosystem in Argentina. 

Dan describes: 

“There is not a robust space startup ecosystem in Argentina. Venture capitalists in Argentina are also very reticent to invest in space hardware that is labor-intensive and which requires cutting edge technologies and materials. It is not possible to reach unicorn valuations in a short period. There’s a lot of interest for tech startups because developers can deliver a minimum viable product – MVP in 6 months to 1.5 years, especially in areas such as Software as a Service – SaaS, biotechnology, mobile apps, agrotech…” 

Dan refers to the broader and bustling tech startup scene in Argentina. The scene dates to the late 1990s with the rise of the Internet. The companies Globant and MercadoLibre, two homegrown startups in Argentina, are now publicly traded. Their unique stories of resilience and vision against a backdrop of economic crises in Argentina have opened the way for many tech unicorns. OLX, Despegar.com, and Auth0 have already joined the ranks of unicorn startups with a valuation above US$ 1 billion. With a highly-skilled labor force and laws to encourage entrepreneurshipArgentina’s tech startup scene will keep growing.

According to The Association for Private Capital Investment in Latin America – LAVCA, Argentina has been reporting record-breaking years in venture capital investment. In 2019, US$ 290 million were invested across 29 deals. Roughly US$ 84 million were reported in 2018 across 19 deals. Additionally, SoftBank set up the US$ 5 billion Latin America Tech fund to invest in high-growth startups in the region. Robust venture capital and investment funds are contributing to the maturity of the tech landscape in Argentina. 

Hand-drawn illustration. Artist Diego Pelaia.   

Paradoxically, a common challenge that space startups face when raising funds is the length of time and efforts required to succeed in the space industry. The path of the least time for a return in the transportation and logistics niche may not be necessarily as quick as for other space applications. But the collaborative vision is worthwhile.

Dan recognizes this.

“Our idea is to contribute to the space ecosystem and to strengthen it because that, in turn, will nurture a symbiosis of public-private alliances. We want to grow and see others grow in tandem.” 

Federico also adds an important consideration in our conversation. 

“Government-led advances in space propulsion and space technologies are not widely showcased in Argentina. Greater visibility of the efforts at home could motivate more university students to apply for internships or take courses in aerospace engineering. This new talent could feed the ecosystem…”  

With four big stages left to complete in the R&D timeline, the first mission is tentative for 2024. It targets the geographic areas of Punta Indio, Bahía Blanca, and Puerto Deseado in the far eastern and southern coast of Argentina to facilitate launches. These geographic locations are advantageous to pursue different orbital trajectories. LIA Aerospace also hopes to be able to leverage some of CONAE’s launch pads. Ultimately, it will depend on the needs of future clients. 

Federico looks ahead with enthusiasm. 

“In 10 – 15 years, I would like to see LIA Aerospace as a global company launching satellites in Argentina and elsewhere. The talent here has always been valuable. This talent hasn’t been capitalized as much it could have been.” 

Developing an indigenous network of talent and expertise is essential for a healthy startup space ecosystem. In Argentina, as well as other countries in Latin America, there are only a few vacancies to work in the space industry. Studying aerospace engineering without a labor market to absorb new graduates currently deters bright and young new professionals in Argentina and across the Latin American region. 

Dan agrees. 

“Argentina has a lot of skilled talent. Unfortunately, given political problems, there has not been continuity in support for space technologies. Otherwise, Argentina could have been in space 20 years ago with the knowledge, technologies, and research developed early on. Similarly to how India did it. The older generations, which have enormous expertise in launch vehicles have already retired. Nowadays, we see a new generation that is interested to develop space tech, especially with the opportunities for online education, but is not doing it as part of a space startup ecosystem.”  

Before wrapping our conversation, I made sure to ask them: why? Why did they start their own space business? 

Federico responded in this way:

“We wanted to set out in our path in the space industry. We want to leverage local knowledge developed in Argentina since the 1960s at the universities and research institutes to develop our technologies in-house.” 

Dan added: 

“We wanted to start up because we want to set out in our path, our timeline, and our vision differently. We want to scale up quickly for a specific commercial market in Argentina and across the globe that increasingly requires satellite launch vehicles. We think of space development with agile methodologies and frameworks. This requires a vertical integration of processes, well-defined and compact equipment, and a clear chain of command to pivot and execute quickly. A state-driven initiative like CONAE might have more leverage but it also requires much more resources, which increases costs and slows down the pace of ideation and iteration. ” 

LIA Aerospace aims to finish 2020 with a historic milestone. From a private field in the province of Buenos Aires, the first vehicle prototype named Zonda 1.0 is scheduled for launch this month. Zonda is also the name of the strong Argentine western winds. These winds blow across the foothills of the Andes mountains with high temperatures. They are typically very dry. 

Zooming Out: History of Successes 

Since its foundation in 1991, Argentina’s national space agency, CONAE has conducted complex space missions. CONAE launched the 4 SAC series satellites SAC-A/B/C/D with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration – NASA. 

The first SAC-A launch in 1998 dates a couple of years after the creation of CONAE. The SAC-D satellite mission, which launched in 2011 with NASA’s Aquarius instrument, measured the salinity of the ocean’s surface for a historic first time. Carrying additional instruments from other countries, CONAE also built additional sensors to complement Earth science research. The SAC-D/Aquarius mission ended in 2015. https://www.youtube.com/embed/tP8uxUCji3k

SAC-D/Aquarius mission.

In 1997 and 2002, CONAE signed numerous cooperation agreements with the European Space Agency – ESA. The partnership between CONAE and ESA has provided grants, courses, and workshops for students and local experts. In 2012, ESA set up a tracking station in the city of Malargüe on the far west of the province of Mendoza. Named the Deep Space Antenna 3 – DSA3, its radio dish enables support to important deep space missions such as ExoMars, Mars Express, Gaia, Rosetta, and Cassini-Huygens.

The Chinese National Space Administration also set up a deep-space tracking station in the Neuquén province at the northern tip of the Patagonian region in Argentina. Not without controversy around its operations, the station started functioning in 2017. It is part of the China Deep Space Network that supports Chinese lunar and interplanetary spacecraft.

Recently signed national agreements include launching partnerships with India. Mexico also signed an agreement with Argentina for the creation of a regional space agency, the Agencia Espacial Latinoamericana y del Caribe – ALCE (Latin American and Caribbean Space Agency). With the veteran private firm, VENG, CONAE is also developing its own satellite launch vehicles, the Vehículo Lanzador Espacial – VLE (Space Launch Vehicle). 

Further Perspectives on Argentina’s Space Industry

CONAE has set up graduate programs with several universities as part of the Plan Espacial Nacional (National Space Plan). The Unidad de Formación Superior – UFS (Superior Training Unit) is the name of an educational umbrella program. 

Ezequiel González is originally from Buenos Aires. Now based in France, Ezequiel is graduate of the UFS program in Argentina. He pursued a Master’s Degree focused on Space Software, Ground Segment, and Systems Engineering. 

Ezequiel also served as one of the team leaders for the FS2017 Mission. This mission was part of the UFS program at the Teófilo Tabanera Space Center in the city of Córdoba. FS2017 was the first CubeSat Mission sponsored by CONAE. Later on, Ezequiel participated in the national SABIA-Mar mission in his role as the Flight and Orbit Dynamics System Engineer for the Ground Segment team. SABIA-Mar is expected to launch in 2022. 

Ezequiel González. Space Solutions Architect. December 2020.

I was interested to speak with Ezequiel given his unique and first-hand perspectives as a graduate of the UFS program. In our conversation, Ezequiel expanded on the following: 

Argentina has always been a strong player in the space industry in Latin America. CONAE is a top space agency. Thus, it is curious that the first university degree in aerospace engineering in the country was launched about 5 years ago, at Universidad Nacional de San Martín – UNSAM. The majority of space professionals that work in the Argentine space industry have backgrounds in other kinds of engineering, like electronic and mechanical, as well as physics and sciences. 

Against a backdrop of shifting alliances, governments, conditions, and crises, being resilient and creative has clearly paved the way for Argentina’s visionary space workforce. In essence, this resilience and perseverance account for many of their most iconic successes. Ezequiel elaborates on this point. 

In Argentina, we have had to adapt to all the changes and to bootstrap with what we have. But space missions require long-term thinking. If there is a lack of investment and discontinuity in public-private alliances for space, and if the job opportunities in the country’s space industry are not steady, younger generations might wonder why would they undertake a career in aerospace engineering.

On the need to increase the visibility and awareness of Argentina’s indigenous space industry, Ezequiel, like Dan and Federico at LIA Aerospace, also believes in the importance of communication efforts. He adds:

More efforts in communications could showcase what is being done for space. What the engineers and professionals do in Argentina is amazing. And not just for the launch of complex satellite missions like SAOCOM 1A/1B. Satellogic is another company doing great things, and it competes at a global level. It is not communicated enough. I don’t know if the audience that is not involved in the space industry is familiar with all of this.

In a country with such a strong lineage of successful entrepreneurship and prescient space-minded initiatives, what could be the tipping point? Looking ahead, Ezequiel argues:

Space itself is risky… But we have a lot of potential in our talent pool. Skilled and with experience in Earth observation missions, I think we can start planning for a Lunar mission in the mid-term. In the future, I would like to see greater synergy in the broader public-private ecosystem. If there is more room for new stakeholders, interesting things could be done in less time. I think there needs to be more continuity and financial investment over time.

Bootstrapping and Buckling Up for Success 

Argentina’s space startup ecosystem is relatively still in infancy. And yet, those already involved hint to the bright futures ahead. With a vision to imagine different futures and a resilience to bootstrap to innovate in the least amount of time, I am confident that new bold startups like LIA Aerospace will continue to find ways to thrive. 

Buckling up for continued success will demand a healthy network of local expertise and knowledge. Young talent must find value in studying space sciences and engineering. In this sense, a vibrant space startup ecosystem can drive innovation quicker and offer new opportunities for a new cadre of students and professionals. 

A steady alliance of private-public players can also leverage the decades-long space program and CONAE’s history of successes. Increased continuity in government policies and regulations to advance Argentina’s space industry will set up partnerships for success. And last but not least, public affairs and communications efforts can showcase more often the efforts to advance space research, travel, and exploration in Argentina. 

If the vision is steady, reaching new worlds might be possible and sooner than we think. ¡Vamos Argentina! ??

//

Diego Pelaia is the talented Argentine artist featured at the top banner and throughout the article. With a passion for both drawing and film since childhood, Diego mastered traditional fine arts early in his professional career. An author as well, Diego’s artistic visual process catalyzes his writing. The drawings featured here are part of a story, De la serie ficciones. I love his forward-thinking hand-drawn pieces. The drawings showcase how simple ideas become game-changers.

Born and raised in Mendoza, Diego also creates 2D/3D artwork for video games and computer graphics with science-fiction themes. Mendoza is the same province for the location of the ESA – Malargüe – DS3 station, which supports deep space missions. 

When I asked him about his creative process, Diego responds: 

The inspiration comes from a longing for a better world, utopian architectures, futuristic landscapes, and alien characters. They are a way of expressing that we must continue to search new things and innovate. I like the simplicity and immediacy of drawing. In minutes, one can put together a concept. The process is so fluid that characters and shapes suddenly begin to appear. From my pencil drawings, most of my ideas and sketches emerge, which over time, I end up bringing them to life with computer graphics.  

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