Iran’s Space Program—Still Cancelled
A single recent launch doesn’t change anything
On Jan. 9, the Iranian government passed a new law disbanding its main space agency, eliminating the agency’s budget line and dissolving four of its main sub-institutions … for cost-saving reasons, mostly. Other agencies absorbed many of the space program’s technology and staff.
At the time of announcement—first reported by Mehr News—we explained that Tehran would probably launch a few of the space agency’s remaining rockets, mostly for propaganda purposes.
Sure enough, on Feb. 1 an old Safir-class rocket boosted an ultra-light, low-altitude Fajr satellite into orbit.
The launch doesn’t mean the Iranian space program is un-cancelled. Not too long ago, Tehran aimed to send Iranian astronauts into space and place one-ton satellites in high orbits. Those grand ambitions have faded with the space agency’s disbanding.
Politics help explain the February launch.
Less than a week after the January cancellation announcement, Hossein Shariatmadari, a prominent neoconservative figure, wrote a newspaper editorial blasting the reformist government for shuttering Iran’s space research center.
Shariatmadari accused the government of ending the space program—and any military capabilities that might spin off of the space efforts—as a sign of good faith to West amid ongoing nuclear negotiations.
For years, Iran’s neoconservatives have conflated the country’s space program with strictly military missile research. And every time the government cut one space initiative or another, the conservatives characterized it as a betrayal of Iran by reformist leaders.
In one notable instance just three months after Iran’s presidential election in June 2013, the dean of the Sharif University of Technology accused the government of blocking funding for the “Sharif-Sat,” a student-developed lightweight satellite.
The government was quick to respond following Shariatmadari’s January complaint. Hessam Aldin Ashna, the Iranian president’s top adviser for science and technology, published a letter rejecting Shariatmadari’s criticism.
Ashna began his letter to Shariatmadari wishing him a swift recovery from his mental illnesses.
But the neoconservatives continued their attack on the government over the cancellation of Iranian space organization. On Jan. 20, Raja News—a conservative Website—claimed that majority of Iran’s space workers had lost their jobs owing to the space agency’s closure.
And on Jan. 30, just four days before National Space Day, conservative media mourned the space program’s passing with melodramatic headlines. “As National Space Day Approaches, the Future of the Iranian Space Program Is Gloomy,” Mehr News wrote in one headline.
On the morning of Feb. 1, Iranian president Hassan Rouhani traveled to Semnan, home to Imam Khomeini Space Station, to supervise the launch of the Fajr satellite.
Rouhani personally ordered the launch via a telephone conversation with technicians at the launch pad, then rushed in front of journalists’ cameras to announce the success of the space mission and to congratulate the Iranian supreme leader for the country’s latest scientific advancement.
Six hours later, the Fajr satellite transmitted its first signals back to Earth.
But Fajr is a small satellite not terribly dissimilar from Sputnik, the world’s very first satellite, which the Soviet Union launched in 1957. Fajr was actually scheduled to boost into orbit in 2012, but the launch failed twice.
According Fars News, Iran actually had two satellites ready to launch on Feb. 1—the Fajr satellite and also a small student satellite. Iran’s launches often fail, so it’s wise to have a backup.
The Fajr’s successful launch reduced the pressure on the reformist government and embarrassed the neoconservatives. But it changed very little for the Iranian space program. With the space agency gone and its people moving to other organizations, there’s no sole independent advocate for Iran’s exploration of space.