BREMEN, Germany — Europe needs to choose its space priorities wisely and work to boost capabilities or face suffering overreach, a leading official says.

“A lot of people will not like what I’m going to say now. I think that we do not have the budget and we do not have some capabilities, in industry as well as science, to start now,” Walther Pelzer, director-general of the German Space Agency (DLR), said during a keynote speech at Space Tech Expo Europe in Bremen, Germany, Nov. 14. 

“A human-rated launcher, a European commercial Space Station, a communication constellation, and deep space science missions. If we try to do them all at once, we will end up with mediocre results,” Pelzer said.

The European Space Agency stated earlier this month it wanted a “paradigm shift” in launch. It has opened a competition for cargo launches to the International Space Station. The European Union meanwhile plans for a multi-orbit connectivity constellation named IRIS². ESA has also signed an agreement with Airbus and Voyager on the Starlab commercial space station. Europe is also seeking greater autonomy in space.

“We should be world leaders in special areas we think are strategic for Europe. We shouldn’t try to do everything,” Pelzer later reiterated. 

Asked by the audience why Europe does not hold lofty ambitions as with the U.S., China and even India, Pelzer opined that big ambitions are good, but reiterated that Europe needs to make sure it is smart in what it tries to do.

“In the long run, of course we should be on a high level with the USA with China and actually above India from my point of view. But in this way, we have to be smart. And this means that we have to come up with a European strategy.” 

This, Pelzer says, requires first of all identifying core strategic needs, then to invest and then to excel.

“We have no industry which will be able to actually put big ambitions into practice. We don’t have the science space to put it into practice. Actually, if we look at the programs we have in place right now, we see that sometimes we struggle with the current programs with regards to capabilities.” Pelzer said.

“So we have to adjust our visions to our capabilities, increase our capabilities, and vice versa.”

Pelzer also sees progress, which is discernible in lunar exploration. “Europe is a strong partner of the USA, we are a strong partner within [the] Artemis program. And for the first time we actually are part of the value chain and we are apart which is not dispensable. 

“So without Europe, the U.S. and NASA are not going to the moon. We are on a different level, it’s not like 20 years or 15 years ago.” 

ESA’s major contributions to Artemis include the European Service Module (ESM) for the Orion spacecraft and the International Habitation module (I-Hab) for the lunar Gateway.

Beyond this, Pelzer wants to see missions in which Europe is the leader and NASA and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), for example, as important partners, rather than vice versa. ESA’s JUICE mission to Jupiter, he says, is a role model showing that Europe can lead.

“This is, from my point of view, the future of a strong Europe in space.”

Andrew Jones covers China's space industry for SpaceNews. Andrew has previously lived in China and reported from major space conferences there. Based in Helsinki, Finland, he has written for National Geographic, New Scientist, Smithsonian Magazine, Sky...