In the United States, the siren whispers of NewSpace seem already to have fallen short of the original intent. In Europe, 74 consecutive successful Ariane 5 launches and the Rosetta mission are proof that solid institutional and governmental programs are far from being old-fashioned. It is in this context that the European Commission released its new “Space Strategy for Europe” in late October. At the same time, a joint statement on a shared vision and goals was signed between the ESA Director General and the European Commission.
An awaited new strategy
The groundwork for European Union space programs was laid out in the early 2000s. As a result, the EU will undoubtedly become a major global satellite navigation and remote-sensing provider. Its main emphasis has been on providing infrastructure and hoping for commercial services to follow. But in recent years, other initiatives have grown out of a purely commercially driven approach, mainly in the U.S. It is fair to say that Europe is concerned about being left behind, so it is time to think about the next 15 years. We need a renewed strategy that addresses the market uptake of existing programs and proposes new avenues for future programs.
A New (EU) Space?
In the launcher sector, a first response to the NewSpace challenges has already materialized with Ariane 6, now well underway. But in other areas — competing with U.S. private entities that are addressing governmental and private-user needs on a purely commercial basis — Europe is not ready, and a simple copy-and-paste solution is not possible. The many reasons for this include a lack of European entrepreneurs interested in space, a guaranteed market size, a shortage of risk capital and, simply, culture: space is not the last frontier on this side of the Atlantic. Hence, to remain competitive on the international scene, Europe must find its own way, by reaching a balance between the public and private domains, and between the civil and defense sectors. There is some urgency, as institutional customers alone will not be sufficient for a sound business case, which needs to both satisfy users of current programs and cover investments for future developments.
Tempering New Space
The U.S. private commercial initiatives have one thing in common: they are all built on technology advancements funded by decades of public investment and public markets. In addition, the U.S. government is still their primary customer. It seems that even the U.S. Congress is softening the too-rapid shift to an all-commercial service: government-owned infrastructure versus data buy is not that clear-cut anymore. As recent launch mishaps have shown, relying wholly on commercial space services, is not the Holy Grail, especially when considering critical services such as national security or human spaceflight. Interestingly, in Europe, we address the issue from the opposite end by eagerly trying to create the framework for such commercial initiatives.
The limits of ‘visionary’ commercial space
The unleashing of the private sector can also generate unfeasible ideas, like the recurrent announcements about wild-west Mars settlements within a decade. Some of these are truly unrealistic projects and may undermine the credibility of the whole sector. Nevertheless, the daring of some visionary individuals is always welcome, even if only for public-relations reasons. As shown by the recent U.S. President Barack Obama’s recent CNN op-ed affirming Mars as the driving destination for the U.S. human spaceflight program, the government’s channeling of such strong enthusiasm is the right way ahead. In Europe, we appear to be too conservative, unwilling to exploit those free thinkers who exist in our midst orto provide them with the necessary funds to realize their dreams. Consequently, the lack of grand inspiration hinders European pride.
Nurturing only the roots — or Old Space, as it’s sometimes called — will not raise us out of the cradle; whereas growing branches too quickly — NewSpace — has an inherent risk during stormy times. As nature shows us, a good balance is essential. A truly European space strategy must take such an adage into account. Private entities cannot replace governments for many reasons, but the opposite is true, as well. There is enough space to accommodate many converging paths. But even if the right adjustments are being made, the EU will not become a spacefaring power in the political sense in the coming decade, as it still lacks military programs and independent human spaceflight capabilities.
Didier Schmitt is a member of the European External Action Service of the European Union. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author.