Ariane 6 rocket in 64 configuration
Ariane 6 rocket in 64 configuration. Credit: ESA/D. Ducros

More often than not the outside observer may find that the European space program is a difficult to grasp if not entirely mystifying object. To be fair, it is no wonder if people have had a hard time making sense of something that can be portrayed as being both singular and plural. The mixture of national, intergovernmental and community-based entities and processes that makes Europe a unique case in the international space landscape is prone to misunderstanding.

My argument, though, is that confusion has come mainly to the tendency to make overly quick and simplistic assumptions about the reasons, goals and values that are behind Europe’s 50-year-old, successful effort to benefit from the free access to and use of space resources.

Europeans know too well that in space, perhaps more than anywhere else, nothing is irreversible. Their 50-years-long history in space has been a series of tests of their continued willingness and ability to stay in the top group.

Proven successes in space science or on the commercial market could suggest a desire to be predominant on the world stage, but the political value of space when explicitly stated as such by Europeans has always been spoken preferably in the language of autonomy rather than influence- or power-maximization, which Americans, for instance, might prefer.

Leadership, as power is often referred to in the space context, is something Europeans are eager to pursue, but it is less sought as an end than as a necessary mean.

Autonomy, on the other hand, exists for itself but is not a straightforward notion. It relies on the historic refusal to let any dependency exceed a certain threshold above which it would become unacceptable.

Deciding where the cursor must be placed is challenging, however. Europe is obviously both unable and unwilling to do everything and has no choice but to choose among the actions of the leader — which one should be emulated and, conversely, which one should be set aside.

The question needs thus to be rephrased.

The first way to do so is to talk about sovereignty, which, from the standpoint of space, is similar to asking how to perpetuate one’s personality and social and cultural identity. The ability that satellites have to collect and transmit information simultaneously from one point to many points on Earth in cooperative or noncooperative contexts puts them directly at odds with the idea that it is each country’s sovereign prerogative to control the exchange of information coming within its territory. This explains why space telecommunications has been an obvious candidate for autonomy.

It took nearly one decade for the nascent European space program to assert itself in this field. The experimental Symphonie satellite put together by France and Germany was critical in acquiring the industrial and technological know-how.

As for its political importance, one might add that the transatlantic controversy surrounding the launch into orbit of this program was used to legitimize the building in Europe of an autonomous launching capability that would clear the way for the Ariane series.

The other issue stresses the importance of maintaining self-esteem. The rallying cry of “autonomy in space” has served as a self-definition reminiscent in a way of “grandeur” in Gaullist France. It implies that there could be no Europe in space worth the effort without technological independence, and technological independence is the indispensable minimum required for a true European space policy to emerge.

The whole idea during the Cold War of Europe’s becoming the “third space power” emerged from this logic. Even before Ariane was born and became the striking symbol of Europe’s high status as member of the “club,” it was clear that any less than an autonomous launching capability would have meant surrender both at home and abroad since it would have kept Europe and notably the major national countries in a secondary, inferior position for all time.

Answering the “why” question is not enough; one needs also to know “how.” Europe thus has promoted two intermediary ends that need to be fulfilled in order to have autonomy.

The first one is competitiveness on the market, or “autonomy on the cheap.” It is here that the so-called leadership often identified with the specific European way of doing space by going after the market intervenes. Not that Europe has had much of a choice: For lack of a true institutional market, based in particular on security and defense needs as in other countries, and without clear European preference regarding launchers, it has always needed to smartly blend aspects of sovereignty and logics of commerce to provide, at very low cost and risk, an access to the market that was autonomous and both competitive and cost-effective.

The other issue of interest is obviously cooperation, since it is the only solution to overcome the weakness and inefficiency that a Europe divided into various national but limited programs would necessarily be, by unifying all the resources and expertise available. This explains why cooperation is as much a choice as a necessity, an end in itself as it is a tool and a framework.

Though the European Space Agency, for example, is well aware of its role as one of the key actors of the story that narrates how Europe successfully placed itself under the label of peace, prosperity and unity after World War II — it is, after all, a living proof that European cooperation can work — it sees itself as a realistic, pragmatic “down to Earth” organization whose job is to actually do things in space.

These two goals have come with trade-offs of their own, thus complicating the picture a bit further, if possible.

The respective roles of the state and private sectors are a first factor of divergence. As in the case of autonomy, the problem deals with an issue of appropriate policy mix. The difficulty lies in adapting space policy to different but complementary temporal dimensions given that most programmatic choice now asks for immediate reactivity and rentability, while requiring sustained and disciplined long-term strategic thinking.

The question to ask is how far public authorities are willing to go to support and finance an autonomous space capability when the alternative consists of increasing the dependence on the global market, which is Europe’s Achilles’ heel.

The other issue touches on the expected outcomes and inevitable burden of collaboration. It turns around finding the right balance between the maintenance of national autonomy within Europe and the defense of European autonomy toward the outside world.

The challenge is summarized in the oxymoron of “unity in diversity.” How to have both?

Europe’s preferred approach has been, at least until now, pragmatic, establishing the development of space technologies on the idea of sufficiency, rather than a logic more American in inspiration that makes space a central element of the national strategy. But the question remains: How much Europe do Europeans actually want?

Europeans know too well that in space, perhaps more than anywhere else, nothing is irreversible. Their 50-years-long history in space has been a series of tests of their continued willingness and ability to stay in the top group. The process can be time-consuming but identifying the optimum combination of autonomy, competitiveness on the market and cooperation has been the price to pay to have a space program worthy of the name.

Guilhem Penent is a research associate at the French Institute for International Relations (IFRI), where he is in charge of the Space Policy program. This article was adapted from a study conducted on Europe in space published on IFRI’s website.