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Europe's space policy in need of radical change

If Europe wants to keep up what has thus far been a successful record in space, the EU, its member states as well as the European Space Agency (ESA) need to shift gears. Otherwise, we run the risk of another “Sputnik-Shock”.

Europe has made great strides since the first launch of the Ariane rocket in 1979: significant ESA interplanetary missions and EU space policies and programmes such as the high-precision Galileo satellite navigation system, the Copernicus earth observation system, and the early phase of a European Space Situation and Tracking (SST). However today, worldwide competition has increased, especially in space infrastructure, with the ultimate objective being integrating space solutions and services into mass market products. Risk exists that European space technologies may be taken for granted. Airbus CEO Tom Enders recently highlighted these concerns in his op-ed for the German newspaper Die Welt.

The United States, a “New Space” pioneer

While Europe risks losing touch, the competition remains stark. In the US, an alliance exists between industry, NASA and the government. Washington guarantees a minimum utilisation of new space technology and in return private entrepreneurs such as Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos invest billions into visionary space projects. This successful interaction between space, digitalisation and private capital is commonly referred to as “New Space”.

Less dispersion, more efficiency

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Europe needs more cooperation across its borders, more speed, and more courage to keep up in "New Space". A key issue to be examined remains the “GeoReturn” principle. It stipulates that a member state’s contribution to a project should flow back to the country’s national industry in the form of contracts. However, it does not consider whether the national industry in question is the best potential partner for these contracts, either economically or technologically. This hinders both innovation and competitiveness, especially when there is competition within a specific segment.

But there are also European pioneers who can pave the way. For example, Safran and Airbus joined forces to create ArianeGroup in 2014, and also took over design responsibility of Ariane launchers. The partnership cuts the costs of the new Ariane 6 in half. Now another collective effort is needed to create the right market environment.

German-French leadership

Together, France and Germany contribute half of ESA’s budget. This has naturally resulted in their taking up leadership positions vis-à-vis the future of European space policy. Chancellor Merkel and President Macron laid the foundation in mid-June, commissioning experts to develop options for action under “New Space” conditions.

Now, the next essential questions are: First, how can Europe maintain its access to space and strengthen its position as an international player? Second, how can the management of European space policy be simplified and made more competitive? And third, which projects should be promoted?

In short: As “New Space” creates new, stark competition, Europe needs to adapt quickly. We cannot sit and wait for another “Sputnik-Shock”! In a world where international order and multilateralism are crumbling before our very eyes, in which protectionism and egoism are rampant, the question remains: What is Europe’s hard-earned autonomous access to space and use of space technology really worth?

This is, above all, a question for politicians. Industry can help answer it, as can science, the military and diplomacy. But time is running short.

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