Which role is Europe to play in the space revolution?

europe's role in the space revolution

The space sector is currently undergoing a revolution, similar to the growth of the Internet twenty years ago, and will surely affect all domains of life. Europe has to be part of this revolution, this race, as it has not yet invested in leadership in terms of human space exploration. So, which role should it play now: spectator, customer, or leader?

Over the last 30 years, Europe pursued collaboration as a junior partner with NASA and, until a year ago, with Russia. In spite of the successful results, it is clear that Europe has suffered the cost and consequences of this dependence, given the global context and the collapsed relationship with Russia. 

As we are heading towards an era in which space exploration is being heavily invested, notably by private investors, Europe should leverage and develop global partnerships in space with significant geo-political and economic benefits for its economy and people. 

Concretely, what is at stake for Europe? 

Nowadays, space is becoming far more accessible than before, and has a strong role in the race for geopolitical influence and future economic gain – and it keeps accelerating. For now, space powers with autonomous human capabilities are represented by non-European permanent Members of the UN Security Council – being the U.S., China, Russia and soon India. This means that Europe is lagging behind, and lacks ambition in the space sector. 

In parallel, there is the everlasting challenge of talent retention. European talents keep traveling abroad to chase better opportunities of succeeding in the space industry. Besides, European industry keeps being acquired by foreign commercial businesses. 

In other words, this makes clear that Europe must take action now to keep those talents at bay and deploy its capabilities, so as to compete with others; the goal being to sustain a long-term presence in the space sector. 

Which benefits of European autonomy in space exploration? 

The ongoing political issues have drastically transformed the role of space-based capabilities, turning them more significant. Bearing this mind, the EU, its Member States, and the ESA have to address these security challenges in order to secure these contested domains – particularly current and future space activities and capabilities

European autonomy in space exploration could also participate in opening new opportunities for diplomacy, reinforcing Europe’s partnership portfolio, where Europe stands in the commander’s seat. This can hence provide a European alternative for partners; and it can eventually contribute to new diplomatic opportunities leading to a more stable, multipolar world. 

To ensure its rise and success, Europe should increase investment in space and space exploration in order to capture large shares of multiple commercial growth areas. The scale of necessary investment to develop autonomous exploration capabilities is rather small compared to R&D budgets of other industries. Leveraging space exploration would hence reassure investors, and encourage them to invest in the European space industry. On top of attracting top talent, this could help Europe sustain its long-term prosperity. 

Furthermore, science plays a bigger role in space exploration than we expect. Autonomous human spaceflight capabilities are to create new synergies between exploration and science, through know-how, know-why, and the reliability of the full value chain of European scientific excellence. This would also support European science with a new room for growth – notably through new capabilities and infrastructures

This creative dynamic between science ‘push’ and technology ‘pull’ has served as the prime driving force and the backbone of five decades of successful European advances in space. 

Responsibility, sense of ownership and can-do approach will inevitably attract young generations towards the STEM domain. And Europe’s trust in young talents will be key to encouraging them to come and stay. Let’s recall that NASA’s Apollo 11 mission control room was 28. 

Space exploration should nevertheless align with Europe’s strategy for tackling Earth’s biggest challenges. Space activities can serve as a key element to identify paths to have a lower impact on the environment, and eventually obtain NetZero. A critical challenge of the latter being power generation, representing currently 75% of all global greenhouse gas emissions. 

Which roadmap to follow to optimize space exploration? 

Concretely, the main challenge does not lie in developing and operating new infrastructures, but rather in procuring commercially-oriented policy. To do so, there needs to be a commitment by the public sector to attract funding in the European space ecosystem, that will help deliver the most cost-effective solutions. 

More than mastering technological challenges, space exploration is also about transforming society in positive ways making its value obvious to the general public. It is essential to build bridges between sectors and generations so both institutions and people can grasp the benefits of space. A private-public cooperation should support Europe in developing a more sustainable and inclusive economy. 

Europe has always had a relatively regressive mindset in its investment model of the space industry. There has to be a right policy framework for public and private investment: both sides equally have to take risks to support the space industry in Europe moving forward. The best way to achieve such exploits partially depends on creating clear goals that are attainable in the short and long terms. 

What about Europe’s ultimate ambition? 

At this time, it has become clear that Europe must transform itself to enable a more prosperous, sustainable, and globally influential future. By doing so, especially in the space industry, this would help Europe reach a position in which it is able to voice itself towards other countries and thus, to secure peaceful relations. 

Within this framework, Europe should design and implement a European Space Mission in order to establish an independent European presence in Earth orbit, lunar orbit, on the Moon, and beyond, while including a European Commercial LEO Station, Cargo and Crew Capabilities for the Gateway and the Moon, and sustained presence on the lunar surface. 

To achieve this, it proves crucial to mobilize resources and to scale up investment within and across Member States. This will surely contribute to Europe acquiring more than one third of the future €1 trillion Space Economy, comprising space applications and exploration. 

Not only should Europe keep building its relationships with like-minded countries, but it should also: 

  • Act Visionary, through leveraging heritage, and investing more to shape the future
  • Act Differently, through transforming the process, empowering new actors, and increasing competition
  • Act Now, as there is a strong need for immediate action to secure opportunities