I remember when I became the CEO of Thales Alenia Space, more than two years ago, that the first thought I had, when thinking about our space business community, was “coopetition.” In fact, we compete against and cooperate with each other all the time.
There is a good reason for this situation — money is scarce. Budgetary constraints are a strong driver toward cooperation, but there is much more to it:
- Overarching governmental space policies, as implemented by and through national space agencies.
- The desires of our customers.
- The emergence of new challenges, such as the problem of orbital debris.
- New business models like condosats, hosted payloads and service-based models.
- The emergence of complementary strategic, commercial and technical capabilities among us.
Needless to say, there are also obstacles to international cooperation, such as:
- Unfavorable regulatory environments.
- Security constraints.
- Differences in industrial culture, as between those who work best under firm fixed-price contracts and those who favor the cost-plus approach.
- Unbalanced currency exchange rates, though it appears that we are slowly moving away from this situation.
I believe that at this particular moment, on both sides of the Atlantic, the need to focus on the reduction of high government debt will drive our governments to spend, or invest, less. Therefore, in order to keep big projects afloat, transatlantic cooperation will be — should be — rejuvenated. Industry should play its role in making this happen.
Let me describe first what is happening in Europe. International cooperation is at the heart of the European Union’s space policy. This cooperation has a strong regional focus, of course, which is designed to build up collective and national expertise. However, it also has a larger focus, aimed at increasing scientific knowledge through shared exploration and technical development. By year-end, a more formal policy will be approved that will:
- Enlarge and clarify the responsibilities of the European Union in both security and civil space activities relative to European Space Agency (ESA).
- Provide a clearer focus on delivering the benefits derived from space activities to the citizens of Europe.
- Reinforce the focus on international cooperation.
There should be no surprise if some or all of these points sound familiar on the U.S. side of the Atlantic. In fact, there are many parallels between U.S. and European goals and objectives:
- To ensure access to space and its peaceful exploitation.
- To develop commercially viable applications — not just for communications but for navigation, meteorology and other areas.
- To foster the development of a skilled workforce, strong sustainable industry and commercial service economy.
The fact that these objectives have been present on both sides of the Atlantic traditionally has encouraged cooperation between the U.S. and Europe. There have been many joint space projects over the last 30 or more years. A major area of cooperation has been in space-based scientific research into climate change-related topics. And we cannot forget our grand joint endeavor, the international space station, which now looks to continue for another decade.
We therefore welcome and find logical and timely the new U.S. National Space Policy’s heavy emphasis on international cooperation. Cooperation in the institutional arena — in other words, between and among governmental agencies and multinational agencies such as ESA — is logical and provides justifications for continued investment in space.
The new U.S. Space Policy and the one that will emerge in Europe before the end of this year will create new opportunities for institutional cooperation. But such opportunities can emerge only if our governments make decisions to launch cooperative programs.
In the commercial sector, cooperation is entirely in our hands. When reviewing Thales Alenia Space’s portfolio of programs, I am amazed at the volume and the diversity of our current cooperative projects. More than two-thirds of our programs include first-magnitude cooperation with other prime contractors. For example, for telecommunications satellites, we cooperate with U.S., European and Russian firms. In the institutional sector, this year we won the contract to develop the third generation of the Meteosat system in cooperation with the German firm, OHB. Of course, we cannot ignore that in Europe, the sacrosanct, but not always praised, “geo-return” rules mandate that we cooperate with others in the region.
But what about our cooperation with the U.S.? Could we be doing more? The answer is obviously yes, but our current activities are already substantial.
The Iridium Next program will provide a tremendous platform for cooperation. We are busy assembling a great U.S. team that will be responsible for approximately 40 percent of the work, especially in such high-value areas as final assembly and test; software and engineering services; and production of the on-board processors. Moreover, we expect to work closely with Iridium’s chosen launch services provider, Space Exploration Technologies.
On the geostationary side, we have undertaken two programs to date with Orbital Sciences Corp. — AMC-21 for SES and Koreasat-6 for Korea Telecom. We also are both now waiting for full funding to arrive soon for OverHorizon, a Europe-based, commercial, “coms on the move” program for military forces.
I also would note the GFO-2 program for the U.S. Navy. Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp. is priming this oceanographic satellite, for which we are pleased to provide the key altimeter instrument.
Finally, we cannot overlook our involvement in the international space station. Through ESA, we have provided fixed modules and cargo modules encompassing more than 50 percent of the enclosed space. Moreover, we look forward to continuing our role as the space shuttle program ends, by working with Orbital on its Commercial Orbital Transportation Services resupply program.
I firmly believe that teaming is in our genes. We have chosen not to vertically integrate in order to have less dependency in case of downturns. This approach also provides us with more strategic and commercial mobility.
We have designed our payloads and platforms in such a way as to make them compatible with others’ products and technologies. We also have organized our programs to efficiently coordinate our activities with partners and to manage complex supply chains.
Of course, all of this industrial cooperation must provide added value for our customers — not added costs.
To conclude, some would predict difficulties in our governments’ budgets — and they would be right. Others would predict a down cycle in the telecom satellite business. There, I have a question mark. My assessment is more optimistic, but Cassandras are there to make us think twice. I strongly believe that the fundamental needs of society in all regions of this world will drive the demand for more capacity and more intelligence in the next generation of space infrastructure and services.
Back in my old country, one humorous philosopher used to say that the events most difficult to predict lie in the future. The good news is, as businesses, we can shape our future and pragmatically look for more ways to promote transatlantic cooperation. Let’s do it program by program, deal by deal, not as a religion or through edicts, but as a simple and sound way to develop our businesses.
Reynald Seznec is CEO of Thales Alenia Space of France and Italy. These views were presented originally to the Washington Space Business Roundtable on Sept. 14.