Erdoğan’s ambitious Turkish centenary targets just went lunar

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has announced plans to send a rocket to the moon within three years.

Turkey aims to make a “rough landing” on the moon with a “national and authentic hybrid rocket” by the end of 2023, Erdoğan said in a glitzy presentation on Tuesday. He did not provide details of the budget for the programme or how it would be achieved.

Erdoğan’s promise to put Turkey at the forefront of the global space race is his most ambitious target yet for the country’s centenary year, which will coincide with his possible re-election. Other goals for 2023 include making Turkey one of the world’s top 10 economies - it lies in 18th position currently - and building a 45-kilometre (28-mile) canal through the heart of Istanbul. Construction of the latter project, announced in April 2011, is yet to begin.  

“Our feet will be on the earth, but our eyes will be in space,” Erdoğan said in televised comments. “Our roots will be on earth, but our branches will be in the sky.”

His pledge to put a rocket on the moon followed a conversation with SpaceX chief executive Elon Musk last month. Turkey will also build a spaceport and create a global brand in satellite technology, Erdoğan said.

The country entered the space business a little over 2 years ago. The government spent 767,000 liras ($108,000) on the Turkish Space Agency in the first six months of 2020, according to budget data.

Turkey employed SpaceX to launch its Türksat 5A satellite into orbit from Cape Canaveral in early January. The telecommunications satellite has 20 percent indigenously developed technology. Airbus Defence and Space provided the satellite’s platforms.

Turkey space program

Should it be successful in landing on the moon by 2023, Turkey would likely need to commit tens of billions of dollars in a very short space of time, along with significant international know-how and technology.

Erdoğan’s pledges to enter the international space race come as he seeks to turn the country into a top regional and global power. They are also being made during a period of rising poverty in the country and high unemployment. Consumer price inflation is running at 15 percent annually, eating into Turks’ spending power.

Perceived mismanagement of the $740 billion economy and the impact on people’s livelihoods from the COVID-19 pandemic has led to a slump in Erdoğan’s job approval rating, which has fallen to 46 percent from 56 percent in March last year.

Turkey would land a rocket on the moon a year before NASA plans to place astronauts on its surface. The United States spent an estimated $25 billion in 1960s money on its first moon landing, when the government budget was posting a large surplus and President John F. Kennedy was being urged to spend the surplus cash on economic stimulus. Turkey's budget is deeply in the red.

In 2019, NASA chief Jim Bridenstine estimated that it would cost between $20 billion and $30 billion for the United States to get a sustainable presence on the moon. That outlay would be in addition to NASA’s annual budget of $22.6 billion and the money already spent on the SLS rocket and the Orion capsule that it intends to use for the programme.  

China also has a lunar exploration programme, the costs of which are unknown. The country began launching lunar orbiters in 2007. It landed the Chang’e 3 on the moon in December 2013 along with the Yutu lunar rover. The Chang’e 4 landed on the moon’s south pole in January 2019, deploying the Yutu-2 rover.