La politique spatiale européenne : Catalyseur d’une industrie d’excellence

La politique spatiale européenne : Catalyseur d’une industrie d’excellence

European space policy:
A catalyst for an industry of excellence

© Ariane 5 takeoff from the spaceport of the French Centre National d’Etudes Spatiales (CNES) in French Guiana, on 5th July, 2012 – CREDIT: CNES

Often presented as a mere object of phantasms, space is one of the most important technological, economic and geopolitical challenges of our History.
Today essential to the development of the great powers, Europe has made it its primary field, to the point of positioning itself as one of the world leaders in the astronautics sector.
While its role as a key player on the international stage is no longer in doubt, the emergence of new powers – whether institutional or private – is challenging the established rules.

October 4, 1957: For the first time in human history, a man-made device is put into orbit around our planet. A Soviet feat followed barely 4 years later by the first flight in space of a man: Yuri Gagarin. Amid the Cold War, these events shake up global geopolitics. John Fitzgerald Kennedy, then President of the United States, will deliver a historic speech the following year, saying that an American will set foot on the moon before the end of the decade. The space-age is born.

The ensuing « space race » allowed each nation to demonstrate real autonomy vis-à-vis strategic systems. Space thus became a new ground of confrontation at the same time political, technological, and diplomatic. Ultimately, more than 70 nations around the world have invested in aerospace research, followed by many private manufacturers. A true vector of industrial organization in the high technology sector, space has given rise to great ambitions, and the European territory is no exception.

In the beginning: a policy unique in the world based on a diversity of actors

It was the European states which, through national independence initiatives, were the first to develop space activity in Europe. France was the first of them, and the third nation in the world, after the United States and the USSR, to gain autonomous access to space.

However, funding and targets were modest, and the attempt to create European space organizations was unsuccessful. It was therefore through the agreement of eleven European states that the European Space Agency was created on May 31, 1975, in Paris: the first institution to truly embody « Europe from space ».

From its inception, ESA (from its acronym European Space Agency), was intended to enable the European continent to rank among the greatest space powers. Considered to be the true architect of Europe’s space, ESA has, for nearly 40 years, coordinated European space policy until it becomes, through its budget, the 3rd space agency in the world. This, outside the community framework.

It was not until November 2003 that the first foundations were laid for cooperation between the European Space Agency and the European Union (EU) following the signing of an EC-ESA framework agreement between the two institutions.

This agreement, reinforced by the Treaty of Lisbon (2009), envisages the establishment of a « global and coherent » European space policy, notably in support of EU actions. The Union is becoming a full player in the European space program, marking a major political step. At that precise moment, the said program grants itself an additional dimension by positioning itself as a means and no longer as an end in itself. Ultimately a means of supporting political Europe on the international scene.

While ESA and the European Commission now jointly set a space policy, the Agency remains the one and only « prime contractor » and must now be seen as the EU’s executing agency. But make no mistake, as a mere intergovernmental agency, ESA is, for the moment, by no means recognized as « the space agency of the European Union ». It is thus totally unbound from any Community mechanism, and only cooperates with EU bodies. The aim is to prevent the Union from setting up its agency for the development of its programs in the future. The two institutions must therefore necessarily place themselves on a ground of complementarity and cooperation rather than competition. Together, they form, with their respective member states: the European space triangle.

It was based on this triad that the Europe of space was developed. The colossal challenge presented itself was to coordinate in a single program and on a continent-wide scale, the industrial excellence of each of the member states. While foreign space powers can focus on building a single space program, Europe must meet the feat of unifying a multitude of actors, diverse and diverse in their economies and policies. ESA thus presents itself as a point of support for the Member States, facilitating the establishment of a European space program coordinating the respective roles of each.

If “Europe from space” can thus be considered as a quintessence of “state geniuses”, the disparities between the Member States, which cannot each have the same scientific excellence, appears as an element of complexity. additional. In fact, out of all European nations, only 2 countries today have autonomous access to space, that is to say, capable of putting a satellite into orbit by its means: France ( 1965) and the United Kingdom (1971).

This disparity of skills justifies the establishment of a “return” policy, encouraging the least developed nations to boost their national space activity, thus taking advantage of Europe and its great powers as a “technological springboard”. As the state of the art has evolved, the success of space programs is now possible with instruments of small size and at a lower cost, then adapted to emerging powers. Europe, therefore, participates, as a unique pole of attractiveness in the world, in this international « democratization » of access to space.

Ambitious programs bringing European industry to the pinnacle

From experience, the presence of Man in space has never been a matter of diplomacy. The conquest of the moon in the 1960s and the establishment of American and Soviet programs were only a consequence of the conflicts that began during the Cold War. So much so that the first space programs that saw the light of day were, for almost all of them, under military control.

The European space program has, from its inception, presented a much more functional and universal scope. This is evidenced by the ESA convention, specifying the « exclusively peaceful » nature of the space program which it must develop in the sole interest of European citizens. European policy is therefore not a doctrine of power, but service to the people.

“The autonomous ability to access space is the mark of industrial and technological power.
But I believe that forty years later we have gone beyond the logic inherited from the Cold War.
Maintaining such a considerable budgetary and industrial effort cannot be justified for decades by the sole concern of prestige or demonstration of force.
But if the effort continues and must continue, it is because space has also become essential to science and to life on Earth.
And the distinctive mark of Europe in space is precisely to have built its space tool around its usefulness for humans and its concrete benefits. « 

Speech by the President of the Republic, Mr. Nicolas Sarkozy, in Kourou on February 11, 2008.

Paradoxically, space has become, in the eyes of Europe, a land issue, and must be able to contribute to the development of an economy based on knowledge and innovation. Its resources hold the possibility of responding to many pressing challenges, ranging from the fight against global warming and the protection of our planet to the new problem of telecommunications. Europe, in these areas, has become a world leader.

Since its inception, European space policy has been embodied in two flagship programs which demonstrate the technological excellence of its industry: the most efficient satellite navigation system on earth – « Galileo » – and an observation program of the unique Earth in the world – « Copernicus » -.

The Galileo program, launched in May 2003, is the first space project funded by the European Union in collaboration with ESA. The goal is simple: to become the most precise geolocation system in the world, ahead of the American GPS, the Russian Glonass, and the Chinese Beidou. The goal was achieved by the deployment of its services in 2016, demonstrating accuracy of half a meter against ten meters for the GPS (Global Positioning System). Its precision is now such that many non-European countries are asking for its services.

Galileo is also the world’s first satellite navigation system designed for exclusively civilian use. The stake is to guarantee the independence of the European Union in a strategic field vis-a-vis the monopoly of the American GPS, then under military control.

The United States was thus opposed to the project at first, for fear that certain nations (like Russia or China) could use it; but also to prevent the autonomy of Europe in the field of geolocation and thus maintain American supremacy. They will eventually accept the project, and even participate in it, allowing the two systems (Galileo and GPS) to be interoperable.

Copernicus, meanwhile, is the name of the “European Earth Monitoring Program”, previously known as GMES (Global Monitoring for Environment and Security). The result of a joint initiative of ESA and the European Environment Agency (belonging to the EU), the program is intended to equip Europe with an information service based on the observation of Earth by satellite. These data, crossed with those from on-site instruments, provide a complete picture of the state of our planet by covering the following six areas: monitoring the atmosphere; the marine environment; lands; climate change; emergency management, and security-related services.

Since its launch in 2014, Copernicus has grown to become “the world’s largest provider of spatial data”. Its resources can be used in particular through a « Space and Major Disasters » Charter, created in 1999 by ESA and CNES, involving 17 space agencies around the world. This Charter allows, in the event of a natural or industrial disaster, the emergency activation of a « unified and coordinated system for the acquisition of cartographic images ». During the earthquake that struck Haiti in January 2010, it thus made it possible to obtain a mapping of the impact of the tremors less than two days after its onset, demonstrating the value of spatial data in disaster management. In one year, the charter was activated 324 times and is now accessible by more than 70 countries around the globe.

Satellite information is also proving to be a necessary tool in the fight against global warming. According to CNES (French National Center for Space Studies): « Of the 50 essential climate variables, 26 are indeed observable only from space ». One of the program’s Sentinel satellites was able to record the decrease in air pollution due to the recent Covid-19 pandemic in Europe and China, once again attesting to its effectiveness.

These programs, made possible thanks to an unprecedented mobilization, were real vectors of organization and industrial stimulation in Europe, involving more than 550 European companies. By opening up the new satellite and telecommunications market to the continent, certain European private manufacturers are now presenting themselves as world leaders in their sector (Thales Alenia Space; SES; Eutelsat; Airbus).

A success that we owe just as much to the famous Ariane launcher, jointly developed by the French and European space agencies. Since its launch in the mid-1980s, Arianespace, the firm in charge of the project, has established itself as the leading commercial space carrier in the world. By successfully completing its 100th flight in 2018, the Ariane 5 rocket remains the most reliable in the world with a 96.5% launch success rate.

European space policy, executed through ESA, is today considered a global success. And, if the presence of multiple actors could have constituted an obvious risk of « confusion in the objectives and dispersion in the means », this characteristic was a force for Europe which made it its distinctive mark. Its space industry, then unique in the world, constitutes the guarantee of an independent policy ensuring the continent a considerable « force of proposal ».

A space policy in competition

While Europe is proving to be a prime partner in the space sector, its industry is gradually starting to lose ground against competing powers, most of them emerging.

The figures speak for themselves: out of 114 launches made worldwide in 2018, two-thirds were made by the United States (39) and China (34), compared to just 11 for Europe. The United States alone accounts for 60% of global public space budgets; two-thirds of military satellites; and is the source of 42% of the satellites orbiting our planet (compared to 8% for Europe).

50,000,000,000 euros: this is the estimated annual US investment in space, including spending on satellite defense. Even ESA, the third-largest space agency in the world by its funding, has obtained « only » 14.4 billion euros in funding for the period 2020-2022, a figure which is nevertheless a record in the history of European space. CNES, for its part, the first European national space agency and the fourth in the world, has an annual budget of 2.4 billion euros, the equivalent of the annual fluctuation of the NASA budget alone. As a simple comparison, the Pentagon’s « air conditioning » budget is estimated at $ 20 billion annually. American hegemony is complete while European institutional funding is sorely lacking.

Alongside the United States, emerging nations are demonstrating their motivations by constantly increasing their budgets and implementing ambitious programs. Without forgetting private industrialists. How not to name the American company SpaceX, whose founder, Elon Musk, has achieved the feat of developing reusable launchers (2015). This technology is literally revolutionizing the launch vehicle market, dealing a blow to the entire international space industry, and in particular to the European Ariane program, the manufacturing cost of which is estimated to be 25% higher than that of Falcon (SpaceX launchers).

As a result, in 2018, the European space sector recorded a 20% drop in turnover for the first time in fifteen years. Europe is now suffering in the face of competition which has been able to adapt to ever-stronger demand, especially from GAFAMs, which are entering a sector hitherto reserved for state and institutional actors. These digital powers wish to develop satellite constellations for commercial purposes, thus shaking up the game of institutions.

In response to this untenable situation, the development by ESA of the new Ariane 6 launcher, intended to relaunch European space, must have reduced production time and costs an estimated 40 to 50% lower than those of Ariane 5. Its first flight should take place in 2020.

Europe will also have to fight through its communication. Symptomatically, the whole of European politics suffers from a lack of embodiment and scope. The European Union struggles to convince its citizens and public actors alike, and its space policy is no exception.

While the great powers of space do not hesitate to communicate on each of their strategic successes in order to consolidate their influence, the citizens of Europe are, for the most part, unaware of the technological successes of Europe. They are equally unaware that almost all of the navigation systems they use are equipped with Galileo, and the very idea of ​​a « coordinated European space program » is probably unknown to them.

While space technologies have become absolutely necessary to maintain a strong and sustainable economy, it is clear that « space » in itself no longer arouses the same passion in Europe as in the past. The old continent must, like a gamble on the future, provide its industry with essential support, both financial and institutional, if it wishes to remain in the « race for space ».

Rémi Huchet, Master 2 in Intellectual Property Law at Université Toulouse Capitole (UT1)

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