Europe’s Latest Space Technology Stimulus Left Contractors Cold

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PARIS — European space hardware builders and some individual European governments are pressuring the European Commission to revamp the way it does space research and technology as it prepares a seven-year program with the promise of 1.4 billion euros ($1.7 billion) in available cash.

The money is part of the commission’s Horizon 2020 program, which succeeds a predecessor effort called the Seventh Framework Program for Research, or FP7.The problem, industry officials say, is that FP7 funds were unavailable for in-orbit demonstration projects or any technologies that had moved beyond low Technology Readiness Levels. The result: promising developments that, for want of support, have never left the research laboratory or design office.

Marco R. Fuchs
Marco R. Fuchs, president of the industry lobbying group Eurospace. Credit: ESA/P. Sebirot

“Industry has not hidden its disappointment with past and current [European Commission] R&T programs,” said Marco R. Fuchs, president of Eurospace, the industry lobbying group. “We have on many occasions pointed out the lack of focus of FP7, its limitations to low [Technology Readiness Level] activities, the unfair competition between public and private entities, etc. In the end, its usefulness to industry is questionable.”

Fuchs, who is also chief executive of Bremen, Germany-based OHB AG, a satellite prime contractor, made his statement Jan. 27 to the European Commission on behalf of Eurospace.

The statement was made in a speech to a space policy conference delivered by Eurospace Secretary-General Jean-Jacques Tortora on Fuchs’s behalf. Eurospace was not alone in delivering the message.

Jean-Loic Galle, chief executive of satellite prime contractor Thales Alenia Space of France and Italy, has been a regular critic of FP7, saying that any lasting impact it might have had evaporated because its financial support is spread so thinly over so many projects.

“Horizon 2020 needs to bring technology to the point where it includes flight demonstrations, and in-flight validation,” Galle told the conference. Galle proposed a formal private-public partnership between industry and the European Commission to manage Horizon 2020 to assure it more tightly focuses its spending on areas that will keep Europe’s space industry competitive.

Small- and mid-sized space technology companies were just as critical of FP7, if for different reasons.

Hans Bracquerie, chairman of SME4Space, which represents smaller companies, said the legal and financial paperwork for FP7, already a barrier for small companies, has only gotten worse with Horizon 2020.

“I am looking at a 300-page document to file covering only financial regulations for Horizon 2020,” Bracquerie told the conference. “Even ESA [the 21-nation European Space Agency, a regular supplier to the European Commission] complains about the regulatory requirements.”

Several European government officials said the commission is under pressure from its member states to spread the wealth among a maximum number of nations even if, unlike ESA, the commission has no geographic-return requirements mandating that a given nation’s industry get a given amount of contract based on its government’s contributions.

The commission’s contract policy, in contrast, is supposed to be value-for-money based. But in practice, especially in areas of technology research, the tendency has been to sprinkle small amounts of money over a large number of projects.

R&TDay-CNES
The Horizon 2020 problem was a theme at the 2015 R&T Day of the French space agency, CNES, held Jan. 29 in Toulouse, France. Credit: CNES

The Horizon 2020 problem was a theme at the 2015 R&T Day of the French space agency, CNES, which is Europe’s largest national space agency, held Jan. 29 in Toulouse, France.

Gilles Bellaiche of CNES’s technology directorate said the FP7 and Horizon 2020 programs were created to favor the participation of researchers rather than engineers. “We have been trying for months to bring into this program more of an engineer’s perspective, and for example to favor in-orbit demonstrations — which are a necessary element. It has been slow going.”

Bellaiche said Eurospace’s critique may have been overstated, but he said it was basically on target.

Bellaiche said there is reason to hope that Horizon 2020 will evolve. For example, the program’s new Strategic Research Clusters to focus spending on a few key topics — one being nondependence with respect to critical space components — should reduce the dispersion of effort.

Bellaiche said the European Commission’s financial presence in the space sector has become so large that national space agencies and industry cannot ignore it. “We need to redouble efforts to work within the commission’s regulations,” he said.

European Commission officials said they had already begun to reform the research effort.

Daniel Calleja Crespo, a director-general in the commission’s Internal Market, Industry, Entrepreneurship and SMEs directorate-general — the body that handles space programs — said Horizon 2020 “will be able to fund in-orbit validation and testing. There is also a lot of funding for non-dependence in space components. This is a very important tool, and the funding instruments are there.”