5 Tiny Countries With Big Space Dreams

Yeah, that looks great and all, but what if you're just a small country? See more pictures of space exploration.
Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp, / Or what's a heaven for?

-- Robert Browning, from the poem "Andrea Del Sarto"

You don't have to be a global giant to reach for the stars or to benefit from the pecuniary promise of space-age technologies. Thanks to the growing availability of public and private launch vehicles, "off-the-shelf" tech for kitting out satellites and serious opportunities for research collaboration, even the smallest nations on Earth can dream big.

Sure, these Lilliputian lands might not plant a flag on the moon, but their Brobdingnagian ambitions are no less symbolically or economically important to their people. For countries of a few million persons inhabiting a couple hundred square miles of land, designing a new sensor for another country's satellite or sending astronauts to the International Space Station are all monumental undertakings.

As you'll see in this article, if you're a mighty mite with a big space dream, it helps to have a strong economy, some able associates and solid trade partners. A hi-tech background doesn't hurt either.

That's the Buran in Earth orbit. Lithuanian brainpower went into that former Soviet Union spacecraft.
That's the Buran in Earth orbit. Lithuanian brainpower went into that former Soviet Union spacecraft.
Erik Simonsen/Photograper's Choice/Getty Images

For 20 years after Lithuania became the first Soviet republic to declare its independence on March 11, 1990, the Baltic country lacked direct access to space. Despite a struggling economy, the 25,212-square-mile (65,300-square-kilometer) parliamentary democracy, slightly larger than West Virginia, has been working to reclaim its place in space ever since.

The intellectual genealogy of this country of 3.5 million reaches back centuries, to the pioneering work in rocketry, astronomy and aeronautics of Kazimieras Simonavičius, Vilnius University and Aleksandras Griškevičius, respectively.

Lithuania contributed much to the Soviet space program, donating scientists to the Mars and Venera projects and cosmonauts to the Soyuz and Soviet space shuttle programs. Lithuanian institutions studied plant physiology under zero gravity conditions on the Salyut and Mir orbital stations, developed robotic vision for the Lunokhod lunar rover, designed heat insulation panels for the shuttle Buran and researched control systems for liquid-fueled rocket engines.

Since then, Lithuania has contributed to numerous NATO and European R&D programs, and has entered into a cooperation agreement with the European Space Agency. More than 100 scientists and engineers of Lithuanian origin have contributed to NASA programs such as Cassini, Galileo, Mariner, Pioneer, Venus and Voyager [source: Lithuanian Space Association]. At home, Lithuanian space research focuses primarily on microsensors and micro-actuators, thermo-aerodynamics, microgravity, astrophysics, and information and communications technology.

As of April 2011, representatives of Vilnius Gediminas Technical University and the Lithuanian Space Association were shopping around the idea of developing a small satellite to carry a scientific payload into orbit and return it to Earth for retrieval.

Now let's roll into a Low Country with high hopes in space.

Nope, that's not what the Belgians wear in space. Belgian astronaut Frank de Winne slipped into that lovely Kazak costume after he got back from the International Space Station.
Nope, that's not what the Belgians wear in space. Belgian astronaut Frank de Winne slipped into that lovely Kazak costume after he got back from the International Space Station.

Belgium has more going for it than beer, chocolate and waffles; it's also been in the space biz since the 1960s. Rather than establish its own space agency, this modern, technologically advanced Low Country of 10.4 million integrated itself from the get-go into European space ambitions.

The land of Dutch-speaking Flemings and French-speaking Walloons -- occupying 11,787 square miles (30,528 square kilometers, roughly the size of Maryland) in Europe -- helped bring about the European Space Agency (ESA). It continues to build bilateral agreements with the continent's other space agencies and has remotely conducted experiments aboard the American space shuttle.

As of January 2012, more than 40 Belgian enterprises, employing around 1,300 people, were engaged in space-related development, and 36 technical groups were working on 75 Belgian projects of PRODEX ((PROgramme de Développement d'Expériences scientifiques, or Development Program for Scientific Experiments), an ESA project that coordinates experimental development and industrial contracts [source: BELSPO].

Belgium hosts a bunch of ESA testing, calibration and inspection facilities: The Liège Space Centre provides testing under vacuum conditions; the von Karman Institute investigates atmosphere re-entry for spacecraft and the Cyclotron Research Centre explores how cosmic radiation affects electronic components.

The ESA's first small satellite, a collaborative effort called PROBA (Project for On-Board Autonomy), was built in Belgium. Designed for a one-year mission, the shoebox-sized craft, which monitors high-energy charged particles, celebrated its 10th operational anniversary on Oct. 22, 2011.

Next up: a tiny country that has not only built satellites, but has also launched them using its own rockets.

That's Ilan Ramon (bottom right in red) with the rest of the STS-107 crew. Israel hasn't given up on space since losing one of its own in the Columbia accident though.
That's Ilan Ramon (bottom right in red) with the rest of the STS-107 crew. Israel hasn't given up on space since losing one of its own in the Columbia accident though.
Photo courtesy NASA

A nation of few natural resources, Israel has long relied on high technology exports such as aviation, communications and fiber optics to help drive its economy. Perhaps that's why this Middle Eastern nation of 8,019 square miles (20,770 square kilometers, roughly the size of New Jersey) leads the pack in the race to the stars by not only operating satellites, but also launching them into space aboard homegrown rockets.

On Sept. 19, 1988, the parliamentary democracy of 7.5 million propelled its first satellite, Ofeq-1, into orbit using an Israeli Shavit three-stage launch vehicle, distinguishing it as the eighth country in the world to achieve such a feat. Israel's technological advances, particularly in miniaturization, helped to make its rocket and satellite programs possible.

In 2003, the first Israeli astronaut, Ilan Ramon, joined the space shuttle Columbia as its payload specialist. Sadly, his first flight was to be his last, as that was the fateful flight that saw the shuttle break up over Texas.

Israel has emerged as a player in commercial space, and the Israel Space Agency has collaborated with NASA, France and Germany in several ventures. The country has also recognized the value of space-based research, such as medical studies in microgravity and space-based crystal growth.

In July 2010, Israel announced that it would stake $77.5 million over five years to spur a civilian space program, projecting that it could seize 5 percent of the market and grow into a $10 billion civilian space industry [source: UPI].

For our next little giant, we'll travel to the Gibraltar of the north.


On Jan. 9, 2012, the world's only Grand Duchy (a land ruled by a grand duke or a grand duchess) successfully launched its second home-built satellite into space, when VesselSat2 climbed to polar orbit from the Chinese Taiyuan Satellite Launch Centre aboard a Chinese Long March 4B rocket. VesselSat1 had ridden to equatorial orbit on an Indian Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) the previous October. The 62-pound (28-kilogram) microsatellites will be used as part of ORBCOMM's Automatic Identification System (AIS) for monitoring shipping (see sidebar).

The constitutional monarchy is no stranger to collaboration. When you're nestled amid France, Germany and Belgium, and you're tinier than Rhode Island (998 square miles, or 2,586 square kilometers), you learn the value of having powerful friends. Perhaps that's why in 1957, Luxembourg became one of the six founding countries of the European Economic Community (later the European Union), and joined the European Space Agency (ESA) as its 17th member in 2005.

The home to half a million Luxembourgers has carried on a dalliance with satellites since 1985, when it began playing host to Europe's first private satellite operator, Société Européenne des Satellites (SES). The company -- which, as of January 2012, owned and operated a fleet of 49 geostationary craft -- helped give rise to the local space industry. Luxembourg's Space Cluster coordinates public and private space-related interests for the sake of building a diverse economy.

Historically, Luxembourg has benefited from a small, but stable, high-income economy known for reliable growth, low inflation and low unemployment.

For our final entry, we move from a landlocked nation to one of the busiest ports in the world.


Most of us know Crest as a weapon for defending Toothopolis from the Cavity Creeps, but to the Southeast Asian island nation of Singapore, CREST (the Centre for Research in Satellite Technologies) is the organization that ushered in the new space age, developing its first domestic-built satellite.

The 265-pound (120-kilogram) microsatellite, dubbed X-Sat, piggybacked into orbit aboard India's Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle-C16 on April 20, 2011, and began transmitting imagery to Singapore's Centre for Remote Imaging, Sensing and Processing (CRISP) on May 5. The X-Sat project was developed by Nanyang Technological University in conjunction with DSO National Laboratories, Singapore's national defense R&D organization.

Covering a mere 265 square miles (687 square kilometers), or about 3.5 times the area of the District of Columbia, this parliamentary republic of 4.7 million people has an established track record of remote sensing research, both alone and in conjunction with the National Space Development Agency (NASDA) of Japan, NASA's EO-1 science team and the ENVISAT projects of the European Space Agency (ESA). X-Sat builds upon that tradition and acts as a demonstration of Singapore's technical know-how.

To paraphrase Master Yoda: Judge this former British trading colony by its size, do you? And well you should not; for its allies are robust international trading ties, a port that ranks among the busiest in the world and a per-capita gross domestic product (GDP) (the total output of a country divided by its population) on a par with the most prosperous nations of Western Europe.


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