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European astronaut on the Moon
An independent committee commissioned by ESA says Europe should develop an ambitious human spaceflight program, one with a goal of an ”independent and sustainable” European human lunar landing in a decade. (credit: ESA/Olivier Pâques)

Europe contemplates a space revolution

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The current head of the European Space Agency has made clear his interest in giving Europe an independent human spaceflight capability, rather than relying on partners like the United States. “I’m restarting the debate on whether Europe should have such a capability,” Josef Aschabcher said shortly after ESA’s ministerial meeting last November where the agency also unveiled its new class of astronauts (see “Europe selects new astronauts as it weighs its human spaceflight future”, The Space Review, December 5, 2022.)

“I was a little worried at the beginning because they are not space experts,” Aschbacher said. “You never know what comes out.”

A year earlier, ESA member states endorsed a set of initiatives that included as one long-term “inspirator” a human spaceflight program to so that Europe could keep pace with the US, Russia, China, and soon India. Those countries “all have their own ship to discover the next frontier, and that means the next economic zone, which is the Moon and beyond,” Aschbacher said after a November 2021 meeting. “Europe doesn’t have such a ship.”

After a “space summit” of ESA and European Union member states last February, ESA announced it would establish a High-Level Advisory Group to examine the future of human spaceflight in Europe. The committee would largely consist of people outside the space community—politicians, scientists, explorers, and even a cartoonist—to broadly address the issue of whether Europe should have a human spaceflight program, and for what reasons.

“I was a little worried at the beginning because they are not space experts,” Aschbacher said at a briefing last week where ESA released the committee’s final report. “You never know what comes out.”

He and others at ESA were relieved with the report’s conclusions. “ESA should design and implement a European Space Mission to establish an independent European presence in Earth orbit, lunar orbit, on the Moon, and beyond, including a European Commercial LEO Station, Cargo and Crew Capabilities for the Gateway and the Moon, and sustained presence on the lunar surface,” the report, titled “Revolution Space,” concluded. That approach included “a scenario for [an] independent and sustainable European human landing on the Moon within 10 years.”

The report offered little technical and programmatic guidance for how to achieve those goals: no discussion of what spacecraft, launch vehicles, or other technologies that must be developed or a schedule for doing so. It was also silent on budgets beyond acknowledging that “promptly mobilising resources and scaling up investment within and across Member States is crucial.”

Given the lack of space expertise among the committee, that lack of technical detail is understandable. Instead, the committee focused broadly on the benefits of an enhanced investment on human spaceflight by Europe, as well as how that investment should be structured.

One major argument might be summarized as the spaceflight version of FOMO: fear of missing out. “Substantially increasing investment in space and space exploration is a precondition if Europe is to capture large shares of multiple commercial growth areas and ensure it does not miss out on economic developments with an excellent chance of high multiplier effects,” the report stated.

It pointed to other fields, like the Internet and artificial intelligence, where Europe was originally strongly positioned but ended up losing out economically compared to the United States and China. “Europe cannot afford to, once more, miss out.”

One member of the advisory group, speaking at the ESA briefing, acknowledged that he was not convinced spaceflight would be the next internet, but argued that the cost of missing out was too high to risk missing out.

“It’s not fully certain, from my point of view, that there will be a future revolution,” said Cédric O, former secretary of state for the digital sector in the French government. “But if there is a future revolution, and let's assume that the Americans and the Chinese are betting on that revolution, then it’s going to be a huge problem if Europe is not part of that.”

“We don’t want to be left aside in terms of the economic and geostrategic implications,” he added.

“Now it’s really time to step up and jump to another level,” said another member of the committee, Stefania Giannini, former Italian government minister for education and research. “What is at stake? It’s about European autonomy.” That autonomy, she continued, “should be achieved through bold political will and investment.”

“If it were my money, I would not put a euro into the current space exploration process or procurement,” Cédric O said. “The overall efficiency of the euros that are spent today is very poor.”

Besides the potential economic benefits of keeping up with the United States and China in spaceflight, the report highlighted other advantages to investing in a human spaceflight program. One was to avoid losing talent, particularly young engineers and scientists, to other countries. “By pursuing autonomy in space exploration, Europe would provide a unique outlet to unlock European talent, and reverse the brain-drain by attracting the best and brightest from outside of Europe,” the report stated.

There would be geopolitical advantages as well, with Europe able to use human spaceflight as a diplomatic tool much as America and Russia have done for decades, and which China is proposing to do by offering flights to other countries’ astronauts.

“This can provide a European alternative for partners, who are interested in options beyond the U.S. and China and thus contributes to a more stable, multipolar world,” the report stated. “For the future, we can foresee for example a European commercial crew capsule with a European astronaut as commander, and astronauts from Latin America, Asia and Africa onboard.”

“I do believe that Europe can help make space a factor of stabilization and international cooperation, even in a landscape that is more and more competitive,” Giannini said. “Europe has to bring a value-based approach and avoid a space Wild West in the future.”

What was notable about the report was not just the arguments it made to justify a European human spaceflight program, but how Europe should develop it. While the advisory group did not delve into the engineering details of vehicles and mission architectures, it did endorse greater use of public-private partnerships—mirroring what the US did with commercial cargo and crew, and now with commercial space stations.

“Rather than designing, developing and operating space infrastructure a commercially-oriented procurement policy needs to be adopted: The public sector, through space agencies like ESA, shall define the requirements for large-scale infrastructure or missions, for example, a crew capsule, and encourage the private sector to propose the most innovative and cost-efficient solution,” the report stated.

That appeared to be based on the frustration with the limited perceived progress on major programs, like the Ariane 6 launch vehicle, done under more conventional approaches. “To be able to get back in the exploration race, Europe must overhaul its approach and processes, otherwise, a reinforced ambition is unlikely to be deliverable,” the report concluded.

The frustration was evidence in comments by O at the briefing. “In 2013, Europe was leading” in commercial launch, he said, with over half the market. Today, “to put it mildly, the situation is difficult.” SpaceX had raced ahead with its Falcon 9 rocket, while Europe struggled to make the transition from the Ariane 5, set to make its final launch this June, and the Ariane 6, whose first launch is no earlier than the end of year.

While SpaceX benefitted from NASA business, the difference “is not a significant increase in NASA’s budget,” he argued. “There is not a revolution in the amount of money that is spent. The big game-changer is the emergence of the NewSpace sector.”

“If we go on with the same procurement policies, if we go on with the same constraints that we have today, if we go on with monopolies, if we go with hampering the emergence of NewSpace actors, we won’t make it no matter what the budget is,” he concluded.

He revisited that point later in the briefing when asked about the budget needed to carry out the goals laid out in the report. “If it were my money, I would not put a euro into the current space exploration process or procurement,” he said. “The overall efficiency of the euros that are spent today is very poor.” NewSpace companies like SpaceX, he said, were far more efficient than traditional European players.

That comment was perhaps a bit too much for Aschbacher. “The money spent in ESA is really well spent,” he countered. “We have done enormous projects and huge achievements.”

“The conclusion was that Europe cannot afford not to do this,” Rathsman said.

But he agreed that traditional contracting would not be sufficient to carry out the plans endorsed by the committee. “Where I fully agree with Cédric, and this has been expressed extremely clearly in the report, that if Europe engages in this space revolution, then we have to change completely the way how we procure and interact with industry.”

That could mean revisiting a core element of ESA contracting, the concept of “geo-return.” Under geo-return, ESA member states that commit to funding specific program expect to get contracts back to their industry for roughly the same amount. That is, if a country provides 100 million euros to an ESA program, it expects companies based in that country to get contracts related to that program worth roughly 100 million euros.

Geo-return has faced persistent criticism that this approach leads to inefficiencies: contracts get awarded based on which countries contributed to it, and not necessarily what companies are best suited to carry out the work. Without it, though, some smaller countries fear their contributions would end up going to big companies in big countries.

In an essay published a few days before the briefing, Aschbacher said he was considering ways to modify geo-return to improve European competitiveness. He argued for a concept called “fair contribution” where countries contribute based on the share of work their industries win, something he noted is already used in some areas of ESA like telecommunications. Other adjustments to geo-return across ESA, or within specific programs, could also be considered.

“Besides measuring the sum of industrial contracts, broader facets of return must also be emphasised; we must look beyond the economic output of investment and consider also the societal and strategic advantages,” he added in the essay.

At the briefing, though, he said he was not contemplating doing away with geo-return entirely. “Geo-return is not a poison,” he said, noting that it was essential to securing a 17% budget increase at last November’s ministerial.

He and other leaders were generally satisfied with the overall report. Anna Rathsman, chair of the ESA Council and head of Sweden’s space agency, was the only person on the committee with a space background. “I’ve been so impressed with the type of discussions we have had,” she said. “The conclusion was that Europe cannot afford not to do this.”

Aschbacher said that ESA would begin studying how to implement the report. “It starts from making the case, identifying scenarios and options, and then shape it together with the member states,” he said. The goal is to provide recommendations for a second space summit scheduled for November in Seville, Spain.

However, with ESA’s budgets and programs largely fixed through 2025 based on the November ministerial meeting, the agency may be limited in what it can do, other than lay the groundwork for future human spaceflight programs, before the next ministerial in late 2025. By then, NASA may be preparing to return humans to the lunar surface on the Artemis 3 mission, while China conducts additional robotic landings and starts to flesh out its plans for human lunar missions. For Europe to stay in the race, there’s no time to lose.

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