Europe has a long tradition of being the continent of explorers and inventors. It is this heritage that has given rise to Europe’s privileged economic and social situation, created for the benefit of its citizens. There had been signs that Europe was losing its traditionally strong position, and not only as a result of the political turbulence unleashed since the Brexit announcement: the risk of severe upheaval in society at large, as a direct result of the economic and social situation, is generating uncertainty over our future.
The same type of phenomenon can be observed in the space sector with companies like Blue Origin, SpaceX, OneWeb and Rocketlab now driving developments across a range of areas. One particularly powerful example is in the launcher sector, where global competition has been intensifying with the advent of very cheap systems. In addition, breakthrough developments from new space sector players such as reusable launchers and marketing wheezes like sending a car into space are attracting attention and increasing pressure on the public sector.
ESA ministers decided in 2014 to develop a new launcher family comprising Ariane 6 and Vega C, based on the existing Ariane 5 and Vega. The promise to secure autonomous access to space and reduce the price by a factor of 2 proved sufficiently compelling to secure ESA member states’ agreement to finance the development. At that time, I succeeded in placing environmental concerns and the possible development of reusability among the high-level requirements:
- Maintain and ensure European launcher competence with a long-term perspective, including possibility of reusability/fly-back.
- Ensure possibility to deorbit upper stage directly
Due to time and cost pressure, however, these aspects did not make it onto the agenda for Ariane 6 and Vega C. Yet in the meantime, the world has moved on and today’s situation requires that we re-assess the situation and identify the possible consequences. In many discussions on the political level, the strategic goal of securing European autonomous access to space has not changed, however there is a growing sense that pressure from global competition is something that needs to be addressed. With Vega C, Ariane 62 and Ariane 64 approaching completion, it seems logical to complete these launchers in order to at least take that major step towards competitiveness. At the same time, it is essential that we now discuss future solutions, including disruptive ideas. Simply following the kind of approaches seen so far would be expensive and ultimately will fail to convince. Totally new ideas are needed and Europe must now prove it still possesses that traditional strength to surpass itself and break out beyond existing borders. In this sense, the process of discussing and deciding on a launcher system that eschews traditional solutions can send a powerful signal out into other areas as well. I therefore intend to invite innovative, really interested European players to come together to define possible ways forward.
Leaders in France and Germany have expressed their backing for more disruptive actions with, for example, French President Macron making multiple references in his speech at the Sorbonne on 26 September 2017 to “l’innovation de rupture” (disruptive innovation) as a major strategic priority for Europe before adding:
Je souhaite que l’Europe prenne la tête de cette révolution par l’innovation radicale.
[I want to see Europe take the lead in this radical innovation revolution]
Similarly, the coalition agreement between the two political parties in Germany published in recent days provides a sound foundation for such a step:
Wir setzen uns dafür ein, die Europäische Weltraumorganisation (ESA) als eigenständige internationale Organisation zu erhalten und wollen sie weiter stärken.
[We are committed to maintaining the European Space Agency (ESA) as an independent international organisation and intend to strengthen it further.]
Europe and its citizens deserve no less, that we all work together to make the future possible, in Europe, across the world, out in the universe…