Feet on the ground: Europe's space policy

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It has been a long time coming, but Europe finally has a space policy.  The emphasis is on improving its citizens' lives rather than grandiose ambitions

Fifty years after the launch of the first satellite, the Soviet Union's Sputnik, Europe has agreed its first space policy. But against US plans for a return to the Moon, the rise of China's manned programme and India's growing ambitions, Europe's space strategy looks rather down to Earth and not that of a world leader.

China launched its first astronaut in October 2003, the USA is planning manned Moon missions by 2020 and India is studying the resources required to develop a human-rated launcher and capsule. All three are single nations with space policy goals partly inspired by national pride and a desire to maintain or attain superpower status.

Europe's space programme, in contrast, has been formed through alliances totalling 31 countries, combining the overlapping memberships of the European Union, European Space Agency and EUMETSAT, the European Organisation for the Exploitation of Meteorological Satellites, and requiring a complex mix of demands and issues to be agreed.

Working through these issues required four "Space Councils", joint high-level meetings of the EU's competitiveness council and ESA's ministerial council, beginning in November 2004. The fourth meeting on 22 May approved the policy proposed by the European Commission and ESA director-general.

Unlike India, where China's success has spurred public calls for a national manned effort, and the USA, where NASA uses polls showing high levels of support for its exploration programme, Europe's technocratic policy development has not been informed by public opinion. The EC's Eurobarometer polling service has never asked European citizens about their attitudes towards space and neither has ESA.

Instead individual EU governments have historically sold their space budgets on the basis of policies more relevant to their citizens' daily lives. This is reflected in the new European Space Policy and its €6 billion ($XX billion) a year civil plan to use space-based navigation, communication, observation and science to support, for example, EU policies in agriculture, climate monitoring and transport.

Despite this supporting role, Europe's spending on space still dwarfs that of its nearest rivals. After Europe Japan has the largest space budget at about [€2.2 billion], then Russia at [€820 million] and India at [€815 million].

Did Europe error in deciding that Galileo satellite navigation should be primarily for civil use?

Space industry consulting company Euroconsult estimates China's civil space spending at around €134 million a year excluding its manned programme, which is operated by the military with an unknown budget.

But when compared to the US space budget, even Europe's spending looks small. NASA has a budget of around $16 billion a year for civil space, with another $21 billion being spent by the Department of Defense.

The difference in spending becomes even more marked when Europe's greater total wealth is factored in. "When you look at the gross domestic product of the European Union nations in total it makes it larger than the US, but because of issues of funding methods and priorities [the outcome is very different]," says Henry Hertzfeld, space policy and international affairs research professor at George Washington University's Elliot school of international affairs.

So, despite having the potential combined national wealth to match US spending levels, the new space policy envisages no great leaps. "I was expecting more vision. This document does not put into perspective what is going on in the rest of the world," says European Space Policy Institute secretary-general Serge Plattard.

In China and India the expansion of their space programmes is being funded by economies growing at a rate of 8% or more a year, while in Russia industry is benefiting from an economy buoyed by oil revenue. Europe's space sector, with its €4.4 billion annual turnover and direct employment of 28,000 people, sees this as unwelcome competition. At least a third of its revenue is from a commercial market increasingly accessible to these low-cost countries.

"Industry relies on non European markets and that is fragile. In Europe we don't have the guaranteed markets like the US," says Plattard. To the Aerospace and Defence Industries Association of Europe (ASD-Europe) trade body, one solution is a shift in space spending from the research and development focus of ESA.

Largely an R&D organisation, ESA is responsible for half of Europe's civil space spending, with European national programmes and space-related research projects under the EU's Framework Programme (FP) making up the remainder. ASD-Europe's space specialist, Olivier Lemaitre, thinks this R&D focus has to change with the development of more space-based services. "The EU should have a budget line for space that is not R&D, as it does for Galileo under [the EC department for] Transport", he says.

But Hertzfeld does not expect such a change and views the new policy as a continuation of a long-term trend. "This [is about the] relationship between the national programmes, ESA and the European Union. They are trying to find the right balance," he says.

This balance has seen the member states create national technology capabilities that ESA combines and develops into deployable systems with the EU as the customer. That this is an ongoing balancing act can be seen in the highs and lows of the two EU/ESA flagship projects, the Galileo satellite navigation system and Global Monitoring for Environment and Security (GMES).

While EUMETSAT and other past European programmes used the model of institutional development and deployment, followed by privatisation for commercial exploitation, Galileo was to heavily involve private funds from the beginning. Under the public-private partnership model planned for Galileo, private capital was to cover two-thirds of the cost. But the consortium of companies within the newly created Galileo Operating Company will now not agree to the plan.

Because of this, European governments are already planning a different approach for GMES, more akin to the older institutional style. ESA director of Earth observation programmes Volker Liebig cannot stress enough the importance of the management structure, saying: "We have to find the right governance [for GMES]".

The first GMES data services are to be switched on next year, but will be for European governments only while the physical networks, ground stations, management and cost structures are put in place.

Despite the return to tried and tested management methods with GMES, its future is not secure. Henrik Zourek, director-general of the EC enterprise and industry directorate, is expecting major decisions on funding in 2009. "We have to prepare for the post-2008 period, with the [2009] mid-term [EU budget] review. Then we'll see if the [GMES] roadmap is a pipedream or not."

Financial question marks over flagship projects are not welcome news for the European space industry. Its leaders, such as EADS Space chief executive Francois Auque, have been complaining for some time about the lack work and the threat of competition from China within a decade (Flight International, 14 February 2006). Plattard agrees: "GMES puts on a certain workload, but for industry it is insufficient."

Lemaitre, Hertzfeld and Plattard all agree that security and defence has the strongest prospect of becoming a dominant budgetary driver of a future European space policy. For Lemaitre "it is no longer taboo" to have space linked with security and defence, and "Galileo and GMES should be used by both civilian and military", Plattard says.

Senior EC officials say off the record that the decision to make Galileo primarily civilian as a mistake. They not only want Galileo to be seen as a dual-use system, they want EU member states to pay for its military use to bolster the economics of the navigation project.

The S for security in GMES is also viewed differently by EU member states. EC officials say that, while some governments see the security to mean a defence against natural disasters, others view it as a part of a common EU foreign and defence policy.

Meanwhile the peaceful exploration of the solar system, the Moon and Mars, another potential area for big increases in expenditure, is viewed as having less practical value. "The EC is only starting to work in space and has no interest in exploration. It is not a matter of money but of policy. I don't see much prospect for spending on exploration in the short term," says Lemaitre.

This does not bode well for international cooperation, despite this being stressed as an important near-term development for the policy.

While industry might be perceived as an enthusiastic supporter of big international collaborative projects, ASD-Europe finds the reality is a more sanguine approach. Major companies fear the wider diplomatic process could push work that should be European abroad in favour of trade gains in non-space related areas.

For all its perceived weaknesses, the new European space policy has still been welcomed because, as Lemaitre points out, "it means Europe is finally recognising the strategic importance of space and how it can provide tools for European policy".