SpaceX’s historic launch gives Europe pause for thought

SpaceX's successful launch at Cape Canaveral, 30 May 2020. [Photo: SpaceX/Flickr]

Elon Musk’s company’s success in becoming the first private venture to launch humans into space prompted the head of Europe’s SpaceX-equivalent, Arianespace, to claim on Sunday (31 May) that his firm is capable of the same feat.

On Saturday (30 May), SpaceX’s Falcon-9 rocket successfully blasted two NASA astronauts into orbit from Florida’s Kennedy space centre, before docking with the International Space Station later on Sunday.

It marked the first time that NASA astronauts have been able to reach orbit from US soil since the retirement of the space shuttle programme in 2011. The US agency has relied on Russian rockets in the meantime.

The launch was also the first manned mission successfully completed by a private company. It is likely to be the first of many collaborations between SpaceX and NASA, which will in turn cut dependency on Russia.

Stéphane Israël, the CEO of French rocket launcher company Arianespace, said in a radio interview that Europe would be capable of achieving the same success by the end of the decade.

“Nothing is impossible. The American manned space programme started again in 2012. Eight years later, there was this SpaceX manned flight. If Europe made the same choice, by the end of the decade, it would be possible,” Israël told FranceInfo.

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Arianespace is a division of Airbus-subsidiary the Ariane Group and, as such, is a partly-public company that targets mostly private business such a telecommunication satellite launches.

By contrast, Musk’s SpaceX is a private company that covets lucrative public contracts offered by NASA. Israël acknowledged that the US-firm is a competitor but that his company “cannot rely on the same institutional windfall”.

Arianespace’s work programme is ultimately dictated by the European Space Agency (ESA), which has shied away from manned-missions due to the costs involved with developing advanced spacecraft.

In 1992, ESA cancelled the Hermes project, a reusable space vehicle intended to launch atop of the Ariane 5 rocket. The agency instead chose to partner up with Russia in order to get its astronauts into orbit.

Israël is adamant that a European launcher is achievable and in October said he would use an ESA ministerial meeting in 2022 to push for support for such a programme. 

After SpaceX’s launch, the CEO said that “something will happen in Europe” when ESA astronaut Thomas Pesquet can take off from France’s spaceport in Guyana aboard next-gen rocket Ariane 6.

The debut launch of Ariane 6 has been pushed back to early 2021 thanks to coronavirus-induced delays and the space vehicle is not strictly designed to carry astronauts.

A change of policy could be made by ESA if crewed missions emerge as a priority. Its member states showed willingness to invest more in space missions late last year when they granted the agency a larger-than-requested budget.

European Space Agency gets astronomical budget

The European Space Agency (ESA) will enjoy a budget of €14.4 billion over the next five years, after the agency’s 22 member states agreed on Thursday (28 November) to increase funding for space exploration.

The Paris-headquartered agency is, however, not on track to get a smaller cash-injection from the European Union. The Commission last week shaved nearly €3 billion off its previous offering of €16 billion as part of a new draft budget proposal.

Space policy was set to be a priority of President Ursula von der Leyen’s Commission after she agreed to create a new department dedicated solely to defence and space. Under the new proposal, it appears to have been sacrificed for other sectors.

Commissioner Thierry Breton, charged with overseeing outer space policies, is adamant though that “without autonomous access to space, there is no possible EU space policy. Beyond Ariane 6, we have to look to the future in order to prepare for the next technological disruptions.”

The French official wrote in a tweet that “Europe is the second space power in the world, but we cannot rely on our past successes”, adding that “real EU ambition in space is necessary. We are working on it.”

Europe’s big players – France and Germany – are starting to place catch up, sealing a deal with Japan’s space agency to develop a reusable rocket along the same lines as the Falcon-9. The Ariane 6 will not be reusable.

Eyes from above

Europe’s space endeavours have focused largely on the commercial satellite market, by betting big on Earth-observing constellation Copernicus and global positioning system Galileo, as well as launching privately-owned orbiters into space.

Arianespace’s Israël said that “I think that the first priority of the moment is satellites whose services will be directly useful”, adding “this is why I am campaigning for having a large European constellation of satellites that will be able to fight against the digital divide.”

SpaceX is currently working on ramping up its Starlink service, which is aimed at providing high-speed broadband from orbit to the US. The American military has already signalled interest in its services.

Europe could yet enter that market as multinational OneWeb recently filed for bankruptcy and is looking for a buyer. The firm already has more than 70 satellites in orbit, ready to offer high-speed internet and Paris-based operator Eutelsat is reportedly interested in its assets.

Eutelsat is thought to have the backing of the French government and a number of other EU member states but is set to face competition from Chinese interests, Amazon and SpaceX, which may want to corner the entire market.

[Edited by Benjamin Fox]

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