Europe is about to lose its place as a space power. With the failure of the Vega-C light rocket, the positive momentum of the European Space Agency's (ESA) ministerial meeting has already been shattered. The numbers are grim: 60 launches of SpaceX's Falcon rocket this year, compared to... 3 Ariane launches.
More than 100 American launches are expected in 2023, while Ariane 5 will phase out without a confirmed maiden flight of its big sister Ariane 6. By that time, Europe will no longer have access to space, so we will be forced to launch the last three Galileo navigation satellites… with SpaceX, having previously relied on Russian Soyuz rockets.
We had already launched the latest French military communications satellite with an American rocket. Not to mention manned flights, which Europe never mastered, unlike the Americans, the Russians and now the Chinese. China is the only country that has an independent space station, while the others depend on the International Space Station.
Finally, we depend on U.S. Space Command for tracking the smaller objects in orbit, a key capability given their exponential increase due to constellations, debris, and the risk of accidental or intentional collisions. Not to mention the role that the Maxar and Starlink satellites play in supporting Ukrainian field observation and communications. Europeans are often deaf and blind on their own continent.
Why is it important to draw this damning conclusion? Because we can only move forward by first being honest to ourselves and to European citizens. The European space strategy and industry must change radically to get back on their feet. Of course, the performance of Ariane 5 has allowed the James Webb telescope to be more precise and gain a few years of life. Of course, the Orion module is essential to the conquest of the Moon in the Artemis mission. Of course, Thomas Pesquet, Samantha Cristoforetti, and Alexander Gerst are a source of pride.
But all this is happening in the context of programs driven by America, who have once again become an immense space power, in parallel with the Chinese, who are multiplying their successes - landing on the dark side of the Moon, space station, Mars rover, quantum communications - without a lot of care for possible collateral damage, as we saw with the uncontrolled return of the first stage of the Long March rocket in early November.
This is our main message: like the United States, whose space program was dying just 20 years ago after the failure of the Space Shuttle, a leading Europe in space is possible, but it requires great political courage, clear priorities, unwavering honesty, and flawless execution. Let's list some of the possible ways forward.
We are a-go
Europe's space organization and sacred cows need to be radically rethought: When ESA was created, the plan was to abolish national agencies - this was ultimately not done, resulting in a messy overlap of technical and procurement agencies. Same between the European Space Agency and the European Commission institutions, with duplicated resources, overlapping responsibilities and different members.
Finally, georeturn - this policy of returning the exact share of ESA's contribution to domestic industry - is becoming a factor of fragmentation and duplication of competencies at a time when we need pure excellence and speed to face fierce competition. Ironically, European public institutions that want to be "efficient" are rushing into commercial activities such as monetizing space observation, crowding out private actors that would be significantly more efficient. Worse, they are sometimes deeply naive, considering that Copernicus observation data are freely available, even to the major US technology platforms, who make it readable by end users - who pay for the service or provide convenient advertising revenue to those platforms.
Use it wisely
Strategic thinking must be restored, in two ways: by ending the generalised subsidies spree - whether through European research programs or national programs - and instead using public procurement wisely, awarding contracts to the best rather than the most established; by designing contracts strategically to avoid any bias that would exclude new entrants, who often enable the greatest disruption and innovation.
To achieve this, the strategic and operational competence of contracting authorities must be strengthened. More engineers, fewer lawyers. Secondly, we need to think about the technological "Next Big Thing" and not indulge in the hubris of simply wanting "our constellation" - because only differentiation and a technological leap will give us an advantage.
The €2.4 billion solution?
The 2.4 billion euros earmarked for the new IRIS2 connectivity constellation will be wasted if we lie to ourselves, as we did with Ariane 6, by setting unrealistic schedules, or if we make a "sovereign" copy of Starlink. Will we use quantum communications? Will our satellites be less complex and much cheaper with an order of magnitude difference? Will the gamble of using only 100 satellites (compared to tens of thousands that Starlink plans in the long term, having already 2500) pay off? Will multiple orbit positioning (low, medium, high) be a smart bet in terms of performance and cost? Will we become independent in terms of semiconductors used thanks to IRIS2? Will we develop real data processing and encryption technologies for the data used? Will we use laser communications to increase upload and download speeds? Will we have a cloud in space?
Europe is losing market share and influence in space every day, despite the talent our continent has, as the NewSpace boom shows. Only a revolution in methods, strategic public procurement and our ability to prioritize and think ahead technologically can allow Europe to remain relevant in space, one of the key frontiers of the 21st century.