Europe Tired of Playing ‘Simon Says’ with SpaceX

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TOULOUSE, France — European governments spent a year grafting parts of the SpaceX rocket-manufacturing business model onto Europe’s rocket sector, and are now talking up reusable-rocket technology as a promising direction as SpaceX heads that way.

More recently, SpaceX, Google, Virgin Group and others have signaled interest in global satellite constellations to deliver Internet, and the French government has said it is interested in that business too.

It sounds like “Simon Says” with SpaceX founder Elon Musk as Simon, and some exasperated European government officials are now asking for it to stop.

Jean-Jacques Dordain, director-general of the European Space Agency, said one of his 2015 New Year’s resolutions is that “we don’t copy.”

“It’s less risky when you copy, but there is no way to be No. 1 if you copy,” Dordain said. “You can only be second, at best. We have been first in lots of missions.”

Some engineers at the French space agency, CNES, have heard so many references to the U.S. “new space” movement — the multiple private-sector initiatives in space transportation, Earth observation and telecommunications that have found investors in the United States — that they all but gag at the term.

“Yes, there was a reaction to SpaceX, and people now talk about SpaceX’s reusable stage,” said Marc Pircher, director of CNES’s Toulouse Space Center, where more than half of CNES personnel work. “And now you hear the constellation stuff. Look, we have seen a lot of this before and much of it is not new.”

“But they are extraordinarily good in California at revolutionizing business models," Marc Pircher, said. "What do they have that we don’t have? Access to financing — that is where they are more advanced than we are. In Europe we don’t have financial sponsors willing to inject hundreds of millions into space projects.” Credit:
“But [‘new space’ companies] are extraordinarily good in California at revolutionizing business models,” Marc Pircher, director of CNES’s Toulouse Space Center, said. “What do they have that we don’t have? Access to financing — that is where they are more advanced than we are. In Europe we don’t have financial sponsors willing to inject hundreds of millions into space projects.” Credit: CSU Montpellier-Nimes
Pircher’s remarks came in an impromptu response to a question during the agency’s annual research and technology day Jan. 29 about whether CNES’s research and technology spending was learning the “new space” lessons.

Pircher said CNES’s recent agreement to work with Google on high-altitude balloon technologies follows years of CNES effort and the agency’s regular deployment of balloons for atmospheric and other research.

It does not mean, he said, that CNES necessarily believes in Google’s Loon program of balloon-delivered Internet, only that Google and CNES might learn things from each other.

CNES is an agency that in the 1970s invented the commercial space launch industry with Europe’s Ariane rocket series, which could not have survived on its government market alone. In the mid-1980s, CNES invented commercial Earth observation with the Spot optical observation program, which has since been sold to Airbus Defence and Space.

In the 1990s, CNES became an investor in the SkyBridge project, which like Teledesic of the United States was planning a global constellation of satellites for Internet delivery. Both failed because of a combination of financial and technical challenges that could not be overcome.

Also in the 1990s, CNES spent several years working with Russian organizations and others on potential reusable rocket technology, only to conclude that, at least at that point, the costs involved in refurbishing a stage overwhelmed the benefits.

Pircher said CNES’s annual 20 million euros ($25 million) in high-end research, much of it triggering matching investments by institutions or industry, is focused on two broad ambitions.

One is to keep French industry competitive, a goal he said is being achieved, more or less, given the 50 percent share of the commercial telecommunications satellite market won in 2014 by Airbus and Thales Alenia Space’s combined contracts.

The second is to permit space missions that match European scientists’ ambitions. He said that is CNES’s answer to new space.

“New space? Space science is permanent new space,” Pircher said. “We need to work on stuff that is 20 years away from being flown. We have looked at Silicon Valley and what they are doing in space and their technology is no more advanced than ours.

“But they are extraordinarily good in California at revolutionizing business models. What do they have that we don’t have? Access to financing — that is where they are more advanced than we are. In Europe we don’t have financial sponsors willing to inject hundreds of millions into space projects.”

One of the last presentations of CNES’s research and technology focus served to illustrate Pircher’s description of space science as permanent new space.

CNES is a lead investor in Europe’s Advanced Telescope for High-energy Astrophysics, or Athena. An X-Ray telescope whose mission cost has been estimated at 2 billion euros, Athena is tentatively scheduled for launch in 2028 — assuming it passes a technical and financial review in 2019.

Credit: SpaceNews/Lance H. Marburger
Credit: SpaceNews/Lance H. Marburger

Olivier Puig of CNES showed a diagram of Athena’s X-ray Integral Field Unit, color-coded by technology readiness level (TRL), a standard scale measuring where a given concept is on the road from theory (TRL 2, in pink) to demonstrated hardware development and flight heritage (TRL 7-8, in green).

Athena’s X-ray Integral Field Unit’s core focal-plane filter and cooling subsystems are bathed in reddish pink. The diagram provoked chuckles from the audience.