The first space race, in which the United States and the Soviet Union fought for supremacy of what lay beyond the Earth’s atmosphere, was seen by both parties as vital for national security.
During that period, man-made satellites were launched, space probes were dispatched to distant planets, and human beings were sent to low Earth orbit and then the Moon.
The competitors in the second space race are mostly different, but the stakes, arguably, just as high. National security is a big part of it, but so is economic strength, soft power, and technological hegemony.
The US and China are undoubtedly leading the pack. Europe, too, is in the race — but it is struggling to keep up.
Satellites do not find themselves in space by accident. It is the job of launchers to carry them sufficiently far from Earth to make sure they’re not yanked back. The US and China are launching satellites rapidly. Europe isn’t.
Europe suffers from a shortfall of launchers and is thus dependent on foreign support to get its satellites into space. At least with respect to space, then, European strategic autonomy – a stated goal of the European Union – looks some way off.
“Foreign support” means, to give one example, Elon Musk, SpaceX, and the Falcon 9 rocket, two of which will jettison four Galileo navigation satellites into space on behalf of Europe. Next year, SpaceX will also launch Europe’s scientific Hera probe in a follow-up mission to NASA’s DART spacecraft.
As fortunate as Europe is to be able to turn to private companies to get its satellites into space, it doesn’t help things in the long term: the growth in influence of SpaceX on the continent risks making life hard for home-grown launcher companies or crowding them out completely.
It is worth noting that these Galileo satellites are strategically vital. Like the US Global Positioning System or China’s Beidou, the Galileo system is designed to provide accurate location information to users so they can navigate here on Earth. To contract a private foreign company to send these satellites into space reveals something almost like fatalism – an admission that Europe must rely on others (namely, the US) when it comes to space.
Out in Front
Europe therefore finds itself supporting the US space sector, already the world leader, rather than developing its own. Like China, the US puts pressure on the European space ecosystem whenever it makes a concrete technological advance.
There is also a night-and-day difference between the amount of money allocated for the space sector by the US and China on the one hand and Europe on the other.
There are structural challenges in Europe, too, that are sufficiently great to put off potential space sector investors. There is an unhelpful conflation of national and business interests, complicating investment decisions involving one country funding another and, in the end, undermining the development of new satellite launchers and the overall success of the continent’s space sector.
The laser communications field serves as a useful case study. The US has shown great ambition in this area, mindful of the advantages of laser (it’s faster, carries more data, and is almost impossible to jam or intercept).
The Space Development Agency has bought laser communication terminals made in Europe to bolster its satellite constellations and build capabilities beyond what exists in Europe.
As a result, companies creating laser communications terminals are thriving in Europe, but the US, rather than Europe, benefits from their work.
If Europe is serious about playing on the same field as the US and China, it needs to create competition among its tenders. The US has done this with enormous success, generating a healthy landscape for investment by encouraging smaller companies to innovate and push for lucrative contracts. This has also invited more investment in space from the private sector.
Europe can do something similar. The demand for launchers is there; the continent just needs to respond.
Moving beyond a “bordered” approach would be a good start. As it is, the European Space Agency (ESA) operates based on geographic return. Through industrial contracts for space programs, it invests in each member state an amount more or less equivalent to each country’s contribution. In other words, for every pound the UK invests with ESA, it receives one pound in contracts for companies or universities.
This hurts the kind of competition the NASA or Space Development Agency model generates: rather than letting private companies develop launchers, ESA develops its own.
It is bad practice to be over-reliant on another country, however strong and enduring the bond they share and however similar their values.
Europe is a major global power with a considerable economy and massive influence.
It must take a more active role in its own space security, and though it will undoubtedly take time before it can even envisage being independent of the US, it can still make meaningful improvements to its defensive capabilities – and should strive to do so.
Jean-Francois Morizur is CEO of Cailabs and Vice President of Deep Tech Companies in France.
The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of The Defense Post.
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