On November 7, European space players gathered in Seville for the Space Summit. This format was initiated by France in 2022. It brings together institutional players in European space, including ministers, the European Space Agency and the European Commission.
The summit is a kind of last chance for European space. The continent's main space powers - France, Germany and Italy - can no longer agree when it comes to launch vehicles.
Italy announced a decision to remove its Vega-C launch vehicle from the Arianespace catalog, while Germany was angered by ArianeGroup's request for an additional 300 million euros to ensure the commercialization of Ariane 6.
The revolution in the global space market is just beginning. New players, new markets and services are emerging. Scattered statements from space agencies, manufacturers and European governments cannot hide the Ariane 6 delay or the Vega-C incidents. They threaten to downgrade the European space industry and break it up.
Moreover, the European Space Agency (ESA) and its proactive director general Josef Aschbacher are trying to create unity around manned spaceflight, but member states seem to have given up on a European NASA.
Germany's national preferences
Unlike France, which projects its national pride and strategic independence into space, Germany will entrust its military satellites to SpaceX if it is more profitable to do so. When European Commissioner Thierry Breton wanted to reorganize the European space sector around the EU, Germany resisted the idea.
Berlin also refused to foresee a replacement for Ariane 6, preferring to profit from a costly government program it didn't need and put private launch vehicles on the market. That way they break the commercial monopoly of the overly popular French Ariane.
In 2022, the CNES president also recognized that the issue of European manned spaceflight was stalled because of Germany. As with defense policy, Germany will always prioritize its industry, its immediate interests, and its ties to the United States over European sovereignty. Ariane 6 is doomed to the same fate as SCAF or MGCS - cumbersome European programs that Berlin will not hesitate to sacrifice for American hardware.
This is just one symptom of Europe's losing its bearings in space. ESA's ministerial conferences lead to financial competitions rather than a unified European vision. The current model, where each ESA member state makes a financial contribution and receives contracts in exchange for that contribution, does not allow the European space industry to be competitive. It looks more like a regional planning policy than an ambitious industrial policy.
Europe is in the background
Europe is multiplying structures, bilateral and multilateral agreements, spreading itself too thin. At the same time, new space powers such as China and India are looking to the future and do not care about political change.
Positioned as the Americans' main partner in the Artemis lunar program, Europe is content to supply the Orion ESM and Gateway modules that will allow NASA to achieve its goals. European countries are quite content to play a secondary role in the vain promise of seeing one of their astronauts walk on the moon and plant their flag.
Competition in Europe
The Space Summit in Seville resulted in neither a breakdown in relations nor an impressive leap forward. With regard to launch vehicles, the issue of ending the Ariane monopoly was resolved simply and without conflict. France received the necessary guarantees to market and operate Ariane 6, the Germans achieved an opening to competition for launch vehicles, including heavy-lift launchers, and Italy can operate its Vega-C launch vehicle with full autonomy.
Europe was designed as a common market to provide more opportunities and incentives for companies in each country. Now ESA is allowing itself to create a competitor to Ariane 6 by giving more government contracts to private launch vehicles.
NASA is taking a similar approach, relying on both launch vehicles developed by large aerospace companies and new digital players such as SpaceX and Blue Origin. Ariane 6 is necessary for sovereign access to space, but it is not sufficient to remain competitive in the global market.
Much remains unclear about the implementation of this strategy so far. Will the European preference demanded by Paris, Berlin and Rome apply to all European launch vehicles or only to those that are subsidized? And as for Ariane, will we see a gradual return to French management of the launch vehicle or a complete privatization of the program, giving ArianeGroup the choice of launch vehicle architecture without regard to the wishes of geographic return?
Axiom Space is playing into the hands of European industrialists
Axiom Space is asserting itself as a true European Space Agency. It will use SpaceX Dragon capsules to transport future astronauts from Poland, Hungary, Sweden and the UK in the absence of a European proposal.
The Council's response was minimal. They announced a competition for a LEO cargo capsule capable of returning to Earth, with ESA as the customer and funding outside of geographic reentry. No talk of manned missions at this point, but the capsule will be used to deliver cargo and equipment to future space stations.
ESA is finally starting its COTS program (the NASA program that developed the Dragon and Cygnus capsules) while waiting for the CCDev program (the NASA program that developed the Dragon and Starliner manned capsules). This strategy will override the reluctance of nations that do not want to invest in the industry.
In addition to potential benefits of up to €9.9 billion for European industry, failure to develop these manned launch capabilities could result in costs of up to €1.7 billion. This amount would result from the purchase of seats in European facilities from non-European suppliers.
Manned space missions
While the Council of Seville could not provide an immediate answer in the long term, it secured the immediate future of European spaceflight - Ariane 6 and Vega-C.
France, which has long supported European growth in the space sector, is determined to compete. Emmanuel Macron has laid out an ambitious new vision for the sector, backing six French micro-launches and four national initiatives as part of the first phase of the France 2030 program (€63 million). Ambitious startups The Exploration Company and ArianeGroup, with their Nyx and SUSIE cargo ship projects respectively, will be thrilled by this announcement.
Even more than the institutions themselves, mindsets take time to evolve, and we can credit the work of ESA's CEO for achieving this result. The ground is fertile to finally realize the ambition of European manned spaceflight. The seeds have already been planted, all that remains is to germinate them.
With a budget five times smaller than NASA's, ESA unfortunately cannot afford to spread its ambitions too widely and has to focus on a few core issues. But speeches and promises alone will not be enough: long-term institutional commitment in the form of contracts, not subsidies, is needed.