Op-ed | To Beat SpaceX at ‘Simon Says,’ Europe Must Change


If European space officials are tired of playing “Simon Says” with SpaceX, they can invest the money and intellectual capital needed to lead in space.

The unfortunate fact is, they almost never do. What Europe has done is to do a better job of marketing the inventions of others — which may be a good way to make money, but does not buy you a leadership role.

GPS and the satellite mass production line were invented and financed in the United States, so Europe had to have the inadequately funded Galileo.

Orbital Sciences Corp. commercially introduced small geostationary satellites while the manufacturers of large satellites belittled and made fun of the idea. When Orbital sold a few, European governments financed several competing products. Loral, meanwhile, built giant high-powered satellites on a commercial basis with little government subsidy, and when they sold, European governments financed similar spacecraft.

Boeing introduced all-electric satellites, so Europe introduced products that appear to be more competitive — but the idea was not theirs. Iridium and Globalstar were invented in the United States. Loral decided to hand this product to the Europeans when they built their factory in Italy.

Today, Europe builds most low-orbiting communications satellites — but the ideas were not European. Canada first introduced the commercial radar Earth observation satellite.

Space station modules and the cupola were created in the United States, and then given to the Europeans to build — and market. Today, human-related modules are commercially built for Orbital’s Cygnus freighter in Italy — but the market and motivation did not come from Europe.

Likewise, the United States foolishly gave Europe responsibility for the one part of Orion that might earn ongoing income for the developer — the expendable service module. Even the pride of the European space program, Ariane, started out as a modification of the Thor Delta, and, unfair as it sounds, today’s Ariane 5 looks remarkably like a shuttle propulsion system without the space shuttle.

And now the Europeans are copying SpaceX’s ideas.

Beyond their tremendous successes in space science, what have the Europeans developed from the first ideas to a marketable technology? The few that come to mind mostly come out of Britain: the small but full-capacity optical observation satellite and, potentially, the Skylon launch vehicle and its air-breathing SABRE rocket engines.

If Europe wants to lead, it needs to invent radically new ideas and products from scratch and develop them to market. That takes money and inventiveness, as well as good marketing.

Putting what space-related money it does invest into Skylon, instead of an Ariane 6 that is never going to be competitive with what SpaceX is marketing right now, would be an excellent place to start.

 Donald F. Robertson is a freelance space industry journalist based in San Francisco and frequent contributor to the SpaceNews opinion pages.