Europe lacks ambition in space. We need to change it.

Author: Carlos M. Entrena Utrilla

Adapted by: Alicia Vílchez Bedmar

Ariane 5 V243 ascends from the European Spaceport’s ELA-3 launch zone on its 100th flight, carrying a dual payload of the Horizons 3e and Azerspace-2/Intelsat 38 telecommunications satellites.

Table of contents:

  1. Europe is trailing the pack

  2. The last ones on the Moon

  3. A problem of attitude

  4. New visions require new blood

  5. The big challenge for space startups in Europe

  6. Time for a change of attitude

Europe is trailing the pack

Europe is behind almost all other spacefaring nations in developing new space capabilities. This is an undisputable fact:

  • Europe is falling behind in satellite capabilities, with the only exception of Earth observation. Communications, navigation augmentation, satellite servicing, satellite deployment… Europe is never the leader. Especially in the most publicly visible endeavors (e.g., megaconstellations), Europe is a clear laggard: the only megaconstellation in Europe is operated from the UK, built in the US, and financed by the UK and India, hardly a “European” endeavor.

  • Europe is also behind in satellite manufacturing capabilities, with all existing or planned capacity for mass manufacturing for small satellites being located in the US or in China.

  • Europe barely has launch capabilities, having no redundancy in launch, no reusable vehicles (nor any real progress towards them), no medium-launch capability (we use Soyuz), and an absurdly expensive small launcher (€25,500/kg) with a launch rate below 3 launches / year and a measly 89% success rate.

  • Europe has no crewed spaceflight capability, nor any intention to develop one.

  • Europe lacks lunar capabilities. It relies on other countries for lunar exploration (e.g., DLR getting payload capacity in a CLPS lander), and countries like China or India have surpassed Europe in number of lunar missions. Other European deep space exploration missions are hardly ever revolutionary, with the only exception potentially being Rosetta, which launched already 17 years ago.

  • Europe of course has no anti-satellite capabilities. Its satellite tracking capabilities are behind others’, are likely behind in cyberwarfare… but let’s not go there and stick to civilian applications.

To the external observer, it would seem like Europe has given up on doing anything of significance in space. It certainly feels like European ambition has died out. Since the cancellation of Hermes back in 1992, Europe has had the same launch vehicle (Ariane 5 was planned as the launcher for Hermes).

Also, it has always trailed behind the US in space ambitions, copying their announcements or their proposals without ever taking a leadership role itself. It’s just piggybacking in crewed capabilities, in the ISS, in commercial capabilities, in new launchers, in lunar exploration, in rideshares….

The last ones on the Moon

This “given up” attitude is certainly all around. None of the large European contractors would seem to move a finger without money or other space agency. ESA’s support for small companies is mostly focused on monetizing systems that are already built (Galileo, Sentinel).

Even ESA’s projects for space exploration feel like they are convinced that Europe cannot take a leadership role in space: no own crewed capability for Artemis or Gateway, no own small landers for lunar exploration (equivalent to the CLPS program), no own work in habitats, spacesuits, or rovers…

All ESA is doing is developing the Moonlight Initiative and the European Large Lunar Lander, and hoping to barter those for astronaut slots and payload capacity to the lunar surface, no matter with whom.

This means that Europe will be last to most lunar achievements: we will get our turn only when others are done getting the best of it, and they’re happy to trade some of it for our services. We will essentially be the last ones to get to the party: we’ll be happy to be there, but all the good snacks will be gone already.

A problem of attitude

This situation is deeply saddening, because it is not caused by a lack of funding or lack of industrial capabilities. ESA is the 2nd best-funded space agency in the world, Europe is one of the world’s largest economies, European engineers are among the best in the world, and European industry is as high-tech as it gets.

Europe is not behind for lack of capabilities; is behind for lack of ambition.

Let me explain.

This is a situation that Europe is struggling with in all sectors, not just space. Europe is old when it comes to industrialization, and it has grown accustomed to leading the world’s technology as if that’s just the natural order of things. All global hegemons since the 16th century have been European, and the continent is now essentially sleeping on its laurels.

You can see it in the attitude of the EU in most international conflicts: most actions are limited to stern declarations of concern, as if that would be enough. Europe’s concern might have been enough to sway the world’s actions in the past, but definitely not since the 1950s.

Europe has lost its technological and societal prowess, and now it is just like the proverbial elephant in the room, except that it’s an old, half-deaf elephant that doesn’t move very fast. And this makes it is easy to ignore it.

ESA's Hermes spacecraft before re-entry
ESA's Hermes spaceplane was planned to service the Columbus Man-Tended Free-Flyer and the International Space Station Columbus Attached Laboratory. ESA, 1991.

Now, I won’t be telling other industries what to do about this situation. I have of course my opinions as a European, but everyone has opinions. However, I’m a space guy, so I believe my opinion here can count for something.

In space, the “old elephant” analogy stands better than anywhere else: like most old folks, Europe acts as if its time were past, and it were too late to start any ambitious projects. It will try to tag along with any new cool innovations that come up, but it will still act as an old person there. Imagine a 90-year-old learning to use a smartphone: they’re unlikely to ever be as agile as a 15-year-old that grew with the technology.

New visions require new blood

Lucky for us Europeans, “old Europe” is only a metaphor. Our industrialization may be old, but we have plenty of young talent to go around (same as other developed countries, anyway). We don’t need to behave like old people if we don’t want to. We can (and should) be more daring and ambitious. Likewise, we should embrace risk, explore new potential markets, accept failure as just a side effect of living, and aim for leadership positions anywhere we can.

This is the behavior we see in some of the best-known startups in the continent: Isar Aerospace, UARX, Clear Space…. Every New Space company in Europe has a clear vision where they can lead the world’s activities in their respective areas. Some of them will make it, some of them won’t. The point is that they’re trying, and they’re not afraid of fighting for the pole position. Europe’s startup community is not willing to just live with the scraps of the US or Chinese space industry. We want to be there, be first, and be the best.

The big challenge for space startups in Europe

We at Plus Ultra Space share that vision. We want to be the first lunar infrastructure company, build the first lunar constellation, and the first service for communications and navigation anywhere on the Moon.

However, many times it does feel lonely in Europe. Except startups and some investors, it seems like most people do not share the belief that Europe can and should do more in space.

Here’s some of the most usual feedback we get from European investors. Take a guess, it’s not about our business case, or about our technology. What we hear most often in Europe is:

  1. Why are you doing this in Europe? You should move to the US.

  2. Why are you doing this privately? You should talk to ESA and get some funding.”

  3. Why are you going directly to the Moon? You should find an application on Earth, talk to ESA about it.”

With feedback like this, is it any wonder that most EU space startups hardly ever make it big? I’m not surprised, to be honest. It seems like the institutional and investment environment in Europe conspires against the success of the industry it’s supposed to support.

It discourages European innovation and private investment by suggesting that everything requires public funding from day 1 to succeed. Furthermore, it fosters a risk-aversion environment by suggesting that space-based business cases are too risky and that only Earth-focused business cases can be useful. And finally, it encourages the general belief that doing business from the EU is impossible, and that space activities are only interesting in the US.

Time for a change of attitude

Next time you hear someone ask: “where’s Europe’s SpaceX?” just point them to the 3 points above. There’s hardly any investor in Europe that would accept the level of risk that Elon took with SpaceX. There’s also hardly anyone in ESA that would design a program that accepts the level of risk that NASA took with Commercial Cargo to finance SpaceX’s development.

Large European space companies won’t invest in future projects with large but uncertain growth potential, even when ESA is co-financing it. As an example: the first, public call for ideas of the Moonlight Initiative required a 25% co-financing from the contract winners (just 670,000€!), and ESA withdrew the requirement after most of the bidders complained about it.

Just think about this: ESA offered to co-finance the construction of a lunar communications and navigation system for use in Artemis, and the bidders couldn’t even put forward 670k€ for its design! (The contract was finally given to SSTL/Airbus and Telespazio/Thales, who could easily afford the investment that ESA requested).

How are we going to lead in space where the largest contractors in our continent won’t even co-invest with our space agency?

We need a change of attitude, and it clearly won’t come from the established players. If Europe wants to have any say in the future of space development, it has to bet on its startups. We need new blood, and we need it fast!

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