Airbus CEO calls for reforms to European space governance
BREMEN, Germany — The chief executive of Airbus used an international space conference to call for reforms in how Europe manages and funds space activities in order to better compete on the global market.
In a keynote at the 69th International Astronautical Congress here Oct. 4, Tom Enders called for measures including reorganizing procurement of European space programs and doing away with the process by countries are guaranteed work proportional to their contributions to ESA programs.
“I have to tell you I’m concerned with Europe’s slow reaction to the NewSpace revolution, and a revolution I think it really is,” he said. “I’m concerned about cumbersome decision-making processes in Europe, also industrial inefficiencies, lack of investments and, to a large part, a lack of enthusiasm for space.”
He contrasted the status of space in Europe with the United States, crediting both government policies and businesses approaches there. “Our American friends have succeeded because they are proactive in embracing and leveraging the disruptive change in space,” he said. That includes startups willing to “fail fast,” an approach he called “anathema” to larger companies, particularly in Europe.
He also noted government support, including government agencies purchasing launches. “Washington guarantees a minimum capacity utilization for launches, particularly for SpaceX,” he said, also noting support for NASA’s commercial crew program and its proposed lunar Gateway.
“I’m afraid we might risk missing the gold rush in space,” Enders said of Europe’s space program. “You cannot conquer the vastness of space with a narrow, inward-looking and quite often parochial perspective.”
Among the recommendations in his presentation was to restructure European space governance. “That means the EU, the member states, national agencies, ESA and, of course, industry,” he said. “Europe has to upgrade its space decision-making process by simplifying and clarifying its governance.”
He didn’t discuss what that restructured space governance would look like, but one attribute, he said, should be with eliminating the use in many cases of “georeturn,” a process used in ESA programs where countries receive contracts on the basis of how much they contribute.
That approach, he argued, should be discontinued in programs where there is “international competition,” and only used for a combined set of programs rather than on an individual basis. “That would give us more flexibility,” he said. “We could really make our supply chain more efficient.”
Enders also called for what is effectively a “Buy European” policy when it comes to launch, requiring European countries developing spacecraft to launch them on European vehicles, like the family of vehicles offered by Ariane Group, partially owned by Airbus.
“Has anybody ever heard that the U.S. launched a sensitive payload, a sensitive satellite, on an Ariane rocket?” he said. A longstanding provision of U.S. national space transportation policy is that U.S. government payloads should launch on U.S. launch vehicles, although with rare exceptions like the future launch of NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope on Europe’s Ariane 5.
“That is exactly what some European governments do with national security and defense payloads, they launch them on American launchers,” he continued. “So, we should not be shy to call for European preference as it is a common practice of the U.S. to have that kind of behavior when it comes to launching payloads.”
On a related note, Enders said that Europe need to strengthen its “strategic autonomy” in space to avoid dependence on another nation. He cited as an example the fact that almost all smartphones in Europe rely on American software from Apple or Google to operate. “Let’s not make the same mistake in space and hand over our technological surety.”
But while he called for Europe to take steps to improve its internal space governance to be more competitive, he said the continent needed take a leadership role on the international stage. “We need to decide: does Europe want to lead or lag behind in the exploration and the expansion of the new orbital society?” he said, citing a global surge in protectionism and crumbling of multilateral structures. “To build this promising new space, we need global cooperation, we need global rules, and we need global partnerships in which Europe is hopefully a respected and equal partner.”
Although Enders talked about the importance of working on innovative projects, he offered few details on how to create a commercial space startup culture like the one in the United States. During a question-and-answer session that followed, one person noted that American companies benefit from backing by billionaire founders. “What is wrong with the European billionaires?” he asked.
“I do not belong to this class of people,” Enders responded, “but I know a couple and I will do my job with them.”