WASHINGTON — An advisory committee called on the European Space Agency to develop a comprehensive human spaceflight program using a more commercial approach.
The report by the High-Level Advisory Group, released by ESA March 23, called on the agency to develop autonomy in human spaceflight, including crewed spacecraft and a commercial space station as well as the ability to conduct a human lunar landing within a decade, but offered little guidance on budgets for doing so.
“Europe should establish autonomy in Earth orbit, on the Moon and beyond with human and robotic capabilities complementing each other,” the report stated. That included “a European Commercial LEO Station, Cargo and Crew Capabilities for the Gateway and the Moon, and sustained presence on the lunar surface.”
“Now it’s really time to step up and jump to another level,” said Stefania Giannini, former Italian education and research minister and a member of the advisory group, during a briefing. “It’s about European autonomy. This is the main key objective we are highlighting in the report that should be achieved through bold political will and investment.”
The report raised the concern that, by not investing in human spaceflight, Europe ran the risk of missing out on major new markets that would instead be captured by the United States and China, drawing parallels to other fields, like the internet and artificial intelligence.
“Given examples in other technology domains, the potential cost of inaction would far outweigh the necessary investment to secure European autonomy in space,” the report stated. “Historically, a passive approach in Europe led to the creation of foreign market dominance, even in technology sectors where Europe was initially well positioned.”
Another member of the advisory group, Cedric O, former secretary of state for the digital sector in France, said he was not sure that space economy would “explode” in the near future but that Europe needed to invest, just in case.
“It is not fully certain, from my point of view, there will be a huge revolution, but the fact is, if there is a huge revolution, and let’s assume that the Americans and Chinese are betting on that huge revolution, then it’s going to be a huge problem if Europe is not part of that,” he said. “We don’t want to be left behind in terms of the economic and geostrategic implications.”
The report said that Europe should “significantly increase the level of public investment” in human spaceflight but did not give specific figures. However, it emphasized the need for ESA to work with the private sector through public-private partnerships like those NASA used for its commercial cargo and crew programs.
“Rather than designing, developing and operating space infrastructure a commercially-oriented procurement policy needs to be adopted,” the report stated. In such a scenario, ESA would develop requirements for key systems like a crewed spacecraft “and encourage the private sector to propose the most innovative and cost-efficient solution.”
At the briefing, O said that how ESA spent the money was more important that getting more funding, citing the development of launch services by SpaceX that, with support from NASA through commercial partnerships, eroded Europe’s once-dominant position in the global launch market.
“There is not a revolution in the amount of money that is spent. The big game-changer is the emergence of the NewSpace sector,” he said. “If we go on with the same procurement policies, if we go on with the same constraints that we have today, if we go on with monopolies, if we go with hampering the emergence of NewSpace actors, we won’t make it no matter what the budget is.”
He reiterated that point later in the briefing. “The overall efficiency of the euros that are spent today is very poor,” he said.
ESA established the advisory group last year after a space summit what included both ESA and European Union member states. The group’s members included former politicians as well as scientists, explorers and businesspeople. Only one person, Anna Rathsman, chair of the ESA Council, was from the space industry.
“I was a little worried at the beginning because they are not space experts,” said Josef Aschbacher, ESA director general, at the briefing. “You never know what comes out.”
He said he was pleased with the report, which will support planning by the agency to potentially pursue human spaceflight capabilities. “There is still a lot of work to be done. It starts with making the case, identifying scenarios and options,” he said. Those plans will be discussed at a second space summit scheduled for November in Seville, Spain.
“The money spent in ESA today is really well spent,” he said, responding to O’s comments, but agreed that changes were needed to carry out a new human spaceflight effort. “If Europe engages in this space revolution, then we have to change completely the way how we procure and interact with industry.”
That could include reconsidering ESA’s longstanding “geo-return” policy, where countries get contracts awarded at levels roughly equal to the funding they provide for ESA programs. That approach has been criticized by some in Europe for making ESA programs inflexible and noncompetitive.
In a recent essay, Aschabacher proposed modifying that approach to what he described as a “fair contribution” approach, which he described as linked to “the outcome of the industrial competitions and to the actual share gained by its industry in these competitions.”
At the briefing, though, he said he was not considering doing away with geo-return altogether, arguing it was key to the increased funding ESA won at its latest ministerial meeting, called CM22, last November. “Geo-return is not a poison,” he said. “It’s serving us extremely well. We wouldn’t have gotten 17 billion at CM22 without geo-return.”