Reach for the Stars

Portugal's new departure

Portugal, a country historically accustomed to looking to the sea to expand its economy and influence, is now looking to the skies.

As Spring settles in Southern Europe, the streets of Lisbon, Portugal’s capital, begin to fill with visitors from every corner of the world.

Tourism has been a key element of the strategy that saved the small nation from a profound economic crisis, which saw it suffer years of austerity and a drawn-out bailout process with the World Bank, the European Commission, and the IMF.

And today the country is in a much better position; public debt and government deficits are down, economic growth, and exports are up, and, despite the persistent challenges, the general understanding is that things are improving.

After all, one need only to have visited Lisbon in 2008 and now land on what has become one of the most hyped tourist destinations in Europe to immediately see that social, as well as economic, optimism has returned.

Policies for improving the business environment and promoting investment have been broadly successful, with the sea at the center of a scheme for optimizing the exploitation of the country’s natural resources. These initiatives have opened opportunities and created jobs in sectors that were collapsing just ten years ago.

Another often-overlooked component of this recovery, however, has been the establishment of industries previously non-existent in Portugal.

If, ten years ago, graduates from aerospace engineering degrees had to almost certainly go abroad to find work opportunities, today, local companies struggle to find enough human resources for their growing needs. According to the Aeronautic, Defence and Space Portugal Cluster (AED), the country’s leading industry association, in 2016 there were 19,000 people employed in the space sector in Portugal.

The cluster expects at least 1,900 jobs to be created in the sector in the next couple of years, and for the trend to accelerate in the following decades. This is bound to put pressure on the country’s education centers, as Portuguese and international companies battle for the best graduates.

Overall, the cluster’s mid-term goal is to double the sector’s relevance in the economy over the next 10 years.

Today, this industry represents EUR1.87 billion per year, which corresponds to approximately 1% of the country’s GDP. AED’s leaders assure that it is possible to see this industry being worth 2% of GDP by 2028.

These goals have been consistently supported by governmental institutions both on the national and supranational level.

In the city of Coimbra, home to the world’s seventh oldest university, a European project, dubbed Astropreneurs, was launched in January to accelerate 150 European start-ups working in fields related to aerospace.

Led by the Pedro Nunes Institute and developed within the context of the European Commission’s Horizon 2020 program, the project has a budget of EUR2 million to stimulate business ideas and promote new approaches to the incorporation of space technologies in terrestrial fields.

While Portugal will be leading the project, Austria, Belgium, Spain, France, the UK, and the Czech Republic will operate as partners, in a project that should see up to 500 entrepreneurs being intensely trained with a view to accelerating their projects’ business potential.

At a national level, the Portuguese government has also been supporting the expansion of the sector. In June 2017, the Portugal Space 2030 program was presented to the press.

It includes the creation of a “Space Law” to regulate the sector in the country, adapting the current legal framework to the new business models and research areas that are emerging ever more rapidly.

The new framework will be directly focused on attracting private foreign investment for specific projects such as the launching of mega-constellations of micro and nano-satellites, a scheme which has fallen out of favor with the European Space Agency (ESA) but which has contributed to opening access to Earth’s lower orbit for researchers and businesses in countries with fewer resources, as in the case of Portugal.

One noteworthy provision of the government’s plan is the study and assessment of the potential development of a space port in the Azores Islands, their strategic location in the middle of the Atlantic making them an optimal place for space launches.

The Azores already play an active role in the global space industry, with a signal and positioning monitoring station in the island of Santa Maria, from where the Galileo satellite and the piloted and non-piloted missions launched from the ESA’s base in French Guiana are closely monitored.

With or without the Azores center, the aerospace industry has found a new haven in Portugal. A country once known for its sea discoveries is now actively taking part in the exploration of the cosmos, with local companies such as Critical Software, Active Space Technologies, TEKEVER, or ISQ managing to make their mark on the international stage.