Ronnie Nader: Ecuador’s One-Man Space Program

How one developing country is navigating its way into the space age

Ronnie Nader is practically a one-man space program. Nader, a systems engineer and Ecuador’s only astronaut candidate, completed four years of cosmonaut training in Moscow in 2007, subsequently helped establish Ecuador’s own “vomit comet” zero-gravity training program, and managed the design, construction, launch, and operations of the country’s first two orbiting satellites in 2013.

Of course, Nader is not really alone. The Ecuadorian Civilian Space Agency (EXA), which he founded in Guayaquil in 2007, counts on about a dozen other engineers. Nor is EXA alone in the developing world: Thirty-five developing countries have some kind of space program, the World Academy of Sciences reports. In fact, developing countries have a particular need for space-based assets: Satellites can improve the quality of local weather forecasts, monitor agricultural conditions, regulate land use, guide water management, help respond to natural disasters, and provide dedicated communications for telemedicine in places that otherwise lack Internet connections.

EXA’s first satellite, a 2.1-kilogram CubeSat called Pegaso, suffered a collision with a decommissioned Soviet satellite. Happily, the second, Krysaor, was able to pick up Pegaso’s erratic radio signal and help it continue streaming video back home. Here, Nader, who is now working on the next generation of Ecuador’s satellites, explains EXA’s missions and how it approaches them.

IEEE Spectrum: Why should Ecuador have a space program now?

Ronnie Nader: Many people think that developing countries should occupy themselves first with the most basic problems and, after those problems are resolved, see to these things in space. But that is to assume that these scientific and technological questions are a luxury. We simply don’t think that way. You have to be able to do multiple things at once. In developed countries, poverty isn’t beaten, nor is crime. In some places it’s rising. Yet those places don’t stop developing science or technology. It’s technology that makes us grow. It makes us grow as people, as societies.

For example, the Apollo program employed 400,000 people during 10 years, and that moved the economy in a big way, right? To have that kind of domestic technological production and then to export that technology first and bring resources into the economy—for that, one must believe that one can do it. And that’s the objective of our space program, which is very recent. We’re building the foundations so that our new generations believe in themselves but demonstrating it with actions, because you have to demonstrate to believe. And only he who believes, dares, and who dares, achieves.

IEEE Spectrum: How can a space program help Ecuador skip intermediate stages of development?

Ronnie Nader: We are not yet in that stage—that’s the production phase. We’re still planting seeds.

IEEE Spectrum: What technological breakthroughs made it possible for Ecuador to launch its first two video-broadcasting CubeSats?

Ronnie Nader: In 2009, the satellite ground station was the first enabler. We innocently assumed that there was a way to take the signal from a satellite to the Internet. There wasn’t. So we presented our solution to the Austrian Academy of Sciences, and there we asked other people how their satellites worked, what books to use, and how they got their experience. In space, you pay a lot for experience.

Another system enabler was when I went to cosmonaut training. They took me to the Museum of Baikonur Cosmodrome History, and I saw a Sputnik backup. They activated a switch, and I heard the satellite beep. I figured, this is a machine from the 1950s. Maybe my watch has more computing power. I’m capable of doing this.

IEEE Spectrum: What technological applications are useful now that might not have been in Sputnik’s time?

Ronnie Nader: A big difference is the Internet. We have to connect the Internet to space. That was the idea with Pegaso, which emitted video through the Internet. You have to bring space to the people. Our satellite even tweeted. In the Cold War this was a question of few people, and it was supersecret. But it’s no longer a political question. Going to space and getting to other planets is a matter of survival.

IEEE Spectrum: What business prospects does spacefaring technology, such as a high-density battery you’ve developed, have in Ecuador?

Ronnie Nader: The problem with the small CubeSat is that if you buy one part from one place, you have to buy the rest from there too. So we designed almost everything. We bought solar panels, bought raw aluminum to build the frame, had to modify the camera, design and order battery cells from China, make the PCB boards, and made the tooling to make the machines.

We finance ourselves with what we can sell, including data from climate observations. We have seven years of data, so that’s valuable now, and sales provide quite a bit.

We haven’t yet gotten to the spin-off phase. But in 2011 we exported titanium parts for a British satellite. [We are also going to provide to American CubeSat clients] solar arrays, an antiradiation shield, titanium infrastructure, and batteries.

IEEE Spectrum: What parts should a mature Ecuador space program develop for itself, and what parts should it bring in from more-advanced spacefaring nations?

Ronnie Nader: It’s complicated. It’s not just cost-benefit analysis. It’s also a matter of asking ourselves, “What do we not know how to do? What doors will it open for us?” In South America we have a lot of mental colonization from the United States. That has good and bad. The bad is we get used to being a client. On the other hand, we tend to use books as a guide but not as the final word. In that sense we’re very rebellious. We try to understand things in our terms. I follow the Russian philosophy of robustness and simplicity in design.

IEEE Spectrum: What value do you get from your space program that you couldn’t get any other way?

Ronnie Nader: The ultraviolet-exposure data, from whom could we have bought that? UV-exposure data from the Pegaso and Krysaor are now included in local weather reports. Local firefighters are also benefiting—they came to us to ask for help identifying wildfires.

I would also say that one cannot buy a people’s sense of capability. One cannot fire the imagination of a whole generation of future engineers by buying a satellite. These things are earned, not bought. It is the first time—that we know of—that a Latin American country provides satellite parts to the United States.

IEEE Spectrum: What is EXA’s relationship with other developing countries that have space programs?

Ronnie Nader: Via the International Astronautical Federation, everyone knows everyone and we like to collaborate. At the regional level, we’ve had more contact with the Bolivians, some Venezuelans. At some point we shared our satellite data when Venezuelans had drought problems.

IEEE Spectrum: When will Ecuador’s first astronaut fly, and on what hardware?

Ronnie Nader: I continue training, and we’re looking to train a backup. For financial reasons, obviously, we can’t pay [US] $70 million to the Russians and send a cosmonaut to the [International] Space Station. The Space Station is a private club, although they say quite the contrary. Our approach to the problem is to partner with private companies, such as XCOR, Blue Origin, or PoSSUM, that have advanced suborbital technology. It’s cheaper than Virgin Galactic, and you can’t do science with eight tourists shouting and floating around.

A correction to this article was made on 26 January 2016.