Can Europe in Space still Catch Up?

Alain Malégarie
Former Director General of the Euro Institute in Lyon, member of a group of experts entitled “GroupEuro” at the European Commission

Due to a lack of budgetary resources and a lack of consensus among European leaders, Europe is lagging behind the other giants of the world, notably the United States and China.

However, its ambitions remain intact, with the declared aim of building a European "NASA". The EU has an asset: high-quality engineers and researchers. Josef Aschbacher, who will take over as Director General of the European Space Agency (ESA) next spring, wants to make it a modern, flexible and fully-fledged EU agency.

It must be said that its international competitors, Space X and New Space, are formidable. Thierry Breton, European Commissioner for the Internal Market, who is also in charge of space, did not mince his words at the beginning of January: "we must do space differently". That says it all. To put it plainly, for him, it is absolutely necessary to break the taboos, change the method and unite the 22 ESA member countries around competitive projects stemming from the common space policy: this implies stopping spreading ourselves too thinly, and going beyond national interests for the benefit of the Community interest and its citizens and companies.

He sees a necessary redefinition of the roles of each of the players: for the European Union, it is necessary to define the space strategy and policy; and it will be up to the European Space Agency to implement them, and the industrialists will have to align themselves to meet the EU's needs. Clear and unambiguous, on paper at least.

The ambition is legitimate, but the funding must follow. Because the reality is crueller. The Americans and the Chinese occupy space, the Chinese are the challengers, and the Russians and the EU have dropped out. Not to say that they have been 'downgraded'.

The figures speak for themselves. In 2020, the United States carried out 44 manned spaceflight launches, more than half of which were for the Space X spacecraft designed by the firm founded by American billionaire Elon Musk, the new hero of space conquest. The Chinese have carried out 41 launches. Russia launched 12 rockets and Europe 10.

The United States remains by far the biggest investor in space, with a budget in 2020 of 48 billion dollars (39 billion euros), representing 58% of the global budget (no comment!). China comes second, with 9 billion dollars.

The rest (33 billion) is divided between other countries: Russia, 7 billion; EU, 6 billion; India, 3.5 billion, etc.

But China is more ambitious and is planning a second wave of manned flights to the moon, in preparation for the conquest of Mars.

In this geostrategic confrontation, the EU finds itself isolated and weakened. But in this area as in others, Donald Trump's humiliating and aggressive attitude towards the EU over the past four years has made Europeans aware of the risk of finding themselves alone. André-Hubert Roussel, Executive Chairman of Ariane Group, the company that builds the European rocket and whose subsidiary Ariane Espace ensures the launches, mobilised and alerted on the imperative need to work together, between States, in total cooperation to be effective. He recalled that the priority for the EU is to guarantee access to space if Europe wants to keep its sovereignty.

It was to be hoped that European leaders would listen to him and that more funds could be allocated, not to "catch up" with the United States, but to keep at least one foot in space.

Even with the best organisation in the world, the sinews of war remains the budget. Is the European taxpayer prepared to pay the price? Unlike the USA, the EU relies too much on public funding and not enough on private funding (foundations, donations, patrons).  We do not have the same customs! There are embryonic public/private partnerships, but they are still largely insufficient. This is what is needed, however, for the EU to take its full place in Space.

Without substantial financial resources, we must be realistic, the EU will be left behind. As will Russia, for that matter. And Star Wars will only have one winner, and it will be America.

This will be a great waste for Europe, which nevertheless has a high-flying technical capability (no pun intended!). The United States has billionaires who are useful to their country's research. Where are our European billionaires? Where is our European "Elon Musk"? They would be welcome. Space is very expensive... But the geopolitical gain is strong.

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