Elon Musk gives an update on Starship development Sept. 28 at SpaceX's test site in Texas. Credit: SpaceNews/Jeff Foust

The 16th European Space Conference, held over two days in late January in Brussels, attracted a broad cross-section of the European space community. They included top officials from the European Space Agency, European Commission and national space agencies, along with executives from established space companies and startups.

However, arguably the most influential individual for space in Europe was absent. Then again, there was little reason for Elon Musk to be at the conference.

It was hard not to notice at the conference how the ascent of SpaceX, both in launch and satellite communications, has affected Europe’s space industry and, with it, space policy. It comes as Europe is dealing with a botched transition in launch vehicles that has forced the continent to turn to SpaceX to launch science missions and navigation satellites.

“We are not a space power,” Gabriele Pieralli, chief operating officer of Telespazio, said of Europe during one conference panel. “Think about access to space. Europe doesn’t have access to space.”

That lack of access is temporary, ESA and industry officials argued at the conference. Ariane 6 remains set to make its long-delayed inaugural flight around the middle of this year, one year after the last Ariane 5 launch. Vega C is scheduled to return to flight in the fourth quarter of this year, nearly two years after a launch failure. Several companies in Europe are working on small launch vehicles planned to make their first launches this year and next.

Even with those developments, there was an undercurrent of concern that Europe was falling behind SpaceX in launch as well as broadband space services, as the EU prepares to develop its IRIS² constellation even as SpaceX keeps expanding its Starlink constellation. Speakers often viewed SpaceX, and Musk, with a combination of envy and disdain.

That came to a head on one panel of government and industry officials where the moderator asked, “Do you think Europe would benefit from an Elon Musk character with highfalutin, massive ambitions?”

Some clearly bristled at the idea. “We don’t need an Elon Musk in Europe,” said Jean-Marc Nasr, executive vice president of space systems at Airbus. He acknowledged SpaceX has done a “fantastic” job but said it was not something Europe should emulate. “It’s not the model that we have here.”

“I think it would be a mistake to say we need a European Elon Musk,” said Stéphane Israël, chief executive of Arianespace. That was because of both higher government and private spending on space in the United States as well as what he believed to be a greater importance Europe places on sustainable space activities, which will likely be a key aspect of an EU space law due later year.

“To be honest, the guy you have quoted,” Israël told the moderator, referring to Musk, “cares absolutely nothing about sustainable space. The way he is organizing access to space is going in another direction.”

Many in Europe’s space industry, though, are clearly influenced by him as they seek to take their own path in space. “SpaceX is a source of inspiration,” said Yohann Leroy, chief executive of MaiaSpace, a subsidiary of ArianeGroup developing a reusable small launch vehicle.

He added, though, that Europe needed to innovate, focusing on strengths like space sustainability. “If we just try to mimic, 10 years later, what the U.S. has done, there’s no way we catch up.”

However, some of Europe’s latest efforts are mimicking American policies that helped grow SpaceX, like launch competitions and a commercial cargo program. Executives said at the conference Europe needed to do more to aggregate launch demand and consolidate industrial policies among its nations.

“We need to find a European way of doing things,” said Christoph Kautz, director of satellite navigation and Earth observation at the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Defence Industry and Space, or DEFIS. “We should not fall into this depression where there is this huge SpaceX and we have no chance.”

Yet the director general of DEFIS, Timo Pesonen, offered a more pessimistic view. “Beat SpaceX?” he said on another panel. “Easier said than done.”

This article first appeared in the February 2024 issue of SpaceNews magazine.

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...