July 21, 1969. Neil Armstrong, commander of the Apollo 11 spaceflight, planted his foot on the Moon, becoming the first human being ever to do so. The moment is immortalized in the words “one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.” And in a flash, the U.S. is united by a supreme achievement of human courage, intelligence and daring.
Perhaps it is because of this achievement, and U.S. victory in the Cold War ‘space race,’ that the U.S. continues to take space so seriously. Perhaps it is because of China’s assertive push to become an equally strong player in the space arena.
The field, of course, has changed — space today means navigation, the internet, weather forecasts. But what hasn’t is its connection to soft power and innovation, as well as — however much we might wish for an end to conflict — something vital to national defense.
It isn’t just the U.S. and China that recognize this. Europe does, too. And yet, Europe continues to lean heavily on its allies when it comes to the space sector, and thus defense. A recent batch of Galileo navigation satellites, for instance, designed to provide precise location data to users in the same way as the U.S.’ Global Positioning System, will be sent into space not by European launchers, but by American ones. A private company, Elon Musk’s SpaceX, has been contracted for the job.
It’s good to have friends like the U.S., and access to its most successful private companies. But contracting U.S. companies does nothing to support European autonomy: Europe could do more of its share.
The end result might be the same (and desirable): Europe gets its satellites into space; problem solved. But it perpetuates a longer-term problem, which is Europe’s failure to support its homegrown space sector and become more independent.
Investment is an issue. The challenge isn’t so much a lack of money or appetite, but the conditions for investment, which are needlessly complex. European diversity, a main source of European intellectual and practical innovation today, as through the ages, also gives rise to varied legal systems, differences in the availability of capital, and tensions between national and commercial priorities.
In a healthier commercial landscape, in which smaller companies compete easily for lucrative space contracts from a central space agency, investment would also become easier.
And this is exactly what happens in the U.S. with the Space Development Agency and NASA.
The agencies say what they want — launchers to put satellites in the sky, for example — and then let private companies duke it out for the right to design, build and distribute them. In the flames of competition, inefficiencies burn away and the quality of the work increases. The resulting technology is about as good as it gets. This approach has been enormously successful, inviting ever-more investment in space from the private sector and shoring up the U.S.’ position as the world’s dominant space superpower.
The European Space Agency could do something similar. But it would have to abandon its current policy of geographic return. In the understandable spirit of fairness, the ESA invests in each member state an amount more or less equivalent to each member state’s contribution to it.
A £100 investment from France results in £100 in industrial contracts for French companies or universities. And this hurts competition — competition that has proved so successful in the United States, and has put companies like SpaceX, rather than a European company, in pole position to launch important satellites into space.
If Europe is to fulfill its potential to be a space superpower, it needs to consider putting its policy of fairness to one side. A strong continent-wide space ecosystem is better for everyone in the long term, regardless of who wins the contracts.
The good news is that European innovation continues to thrive, and many of the companies who win U.S. contracts are in fact European, not American. For instance, in the field of laser communications terminals, a high priority in the Department of Defense, some European companies have taken leading roles.
Europe is also flirting with more competitive approaches, shedding the geo-return rule for the development of the 2027 IRIS2 satellite constellation. This is a start. But it could do more: by daring to change its approach more radically and embracing competition. In doing so, it could boost its defense, take more of the financial burden of NATO and move one step closer to its goal of ‘strategic autonomy’.
Jean-Francois Morizur is co-founder and CEO at Cailabs, a French startup developing optical communications systems for spacecraft and other industries
This article was updated Dec. 5 to correct the date of Neil Armstrong’s first step on the Moon