With space nations such as China and the United States forging ahead with ambitious plans, where does Europe stand in the global space community? Can Europe successfully compete and is there a willingness to collaborate with other nations? Torsten Kriening sat down with Jean-Jacques Tortora, Director of the European Space Policy Institute, to pose some key questions.
Let’s begin by putting the focus on Europe here. Where does Europe stand in terms of Space Policy? Can you give us a brief overview?
Space Policy in Europe is still in the making. We are still far from finalising an overall roadmap and long-term vision of where Europe’s ambitions stand in space. I would like to advocate for some intermediate steps that we might consider achieving before coming up with a formal overarching space policy.
I think that there are a number of areas in which Europe might come to a joint vision in space matters. A few of them might easily be translated into an overarching space policy. The first one that I would suggest is space security. Outer Space security is by far the most pressing topic that we need to address in the short term because the situation is evolving pretty rapidly since the full deployment of Copernicus and Galileo.
At the moment, the UN and especially the framework of the UN COPUOS, has produced a number of recommendations. It is, of course, up to individual member states to translate these recommendations into their national laws to make them applicable to their citizens and the companies that are under their jurisdiction.
The problem that we have in Europe, is that this should be considered with the long term goal of coming up with a joint European Space Policy. At the moment, one of my concerns is if that all European Member States, one after the other, come up with national legislations, there is little coordination amongst them. This could lead to contradictory objectives within these various national legislations, which might raise legal issues which will be very difficult to resolve.
Can you elaborate a bit on the space security aspect?
Well, we need to realise that major things are taking place at the moment. The first one is obviously the problem of space debris. We should urgently take measures in order to mitigate the multiplication and the proliferation of debris. This is the first step where we really must agree and where we need to move further and faster, consistent with the current reach of the UN guidelines.
Another major issue is collision avoidance. This has a lot to do with space surveillance and tracking and space situational awareness (SSA). The first step is, of course, to know what is going on in outer space. We probably need to move one step further though. The next logical step would be space traffic management, to make sure that everything is done to ensure collision avoidance of at least the manoeuvrable objects in orbit.
The U.S. has come up with a national framework for space traffic management which is certainly a good initiative and a positive step forward, especially since the U.S. will be in charge of the management of the upcoming major mega constellations. Those could become a critical contributor to the next generation of debris in outer space. However, this cannot solely be a U.S. national initiative. It should be a global effort to which Europe has to contribute its share. I would urgently invite European policymakers to consider space traffic management as the next top priority.
The biggest technical challenge is to increase the precision of the assessment of the risk of collisions to limit the false alerts and to be able to come up with adequate requirements for the avoidance manoeuvres. To achieve this, the safest way is to multiply the available sources of information. The orbits of debris can be calculated if you measure its position when it flies over one region, but you substantially increase the precision if you also measure it when it flies over other parts of the world. This is where I think we should encourage broad international co-operation. This is where Europe should contribute its share. We have still a long road ahead of us in order to be able to do that in terms of co-ordination and standards.
You mentioned that we see a number of European countries are going forward with their own space policy. This could jeapordise an overarching European policy. What is Europe doing on that matter?
At the moment, European member states are coming up with national space legislations, which is an obligation, but few of them have a full-fledged National Space Policy. However, I think that European Space Policy should not be seen as one self-sustaining document because I am convinced that settling one single overarching European Space Policy might not be the best way to go, not only because of the challenge to reach consensus among all member states, but because it will be a living document, able to adapt to the evolution of the situation. I would rather see it as a number of topical space policy papers. The first of which, in my view, should be a European space security policy and a commercial European space policy.
This obviously necessitates discussions at the highest governmental level since it implies to some extent that member states agree to some kind of transfer of sovereignty towards third parties for smooth implementation.
Then, we need to reflect on what the role of the private sector might be and how Europe might effectively contribute to future international collaborations, not only at governmental level but also through direct industry-to-industry deals.
From your point of view how does Europe compete at the moment with a big space cause?
This is a big question because it depends what you mean by compete. Competition can be considered on two levels. One is at governmental level. This is what we saw with the space race to the Moon in the 1960’s, which has come up once again with the recent announcements made by President Trump on his concerns regarding the fast progress of China. I think that Europe has no taste for such a space race against other space powers.
In this respect it’s an important question to ask what qualifies a country as a space power as opposed to a space faring nation. In fact, it’s an interesting question to ask whether Europe can be considered as a full-fledged space power on par with the U.S., Russia and China. Its technological and industrial capacities are there. However, in terms of autonomy, there are still a number of critical technologies that have not been mastered within the European area and this is definitely something which singles Europe out since all the other so-called space powers have at the very top of their national space agenda a very strong requirement for full technological autonomy. This is not the case for Europe. By the way, another concern regarding autonomy is related to decision-making and to the capacity of Europe to come up quickly with some decisions.
The second level of competition is at industry level. European member states do support competition at industry level and amongst companies. However, we have to face much fiercer competition as in the past, especially from the United States since the advent of the so-called NewSpace, that boosted a number of U.S. companies on commercial markets.
Actually, we could say that the European way in space is better than the Chinese and cheaper than the Americans. At the moment, we are facing a situation where the Chinese are getting better and better and the Americans are getting cheaper and cheaper. Maybe we will have to reinvent the way Europe operates, but I am confident that we are able to sustain a competition on the global space markets, especially in the field of space transportation against providers like SpaceX.
With the recent news that China landed on the far side of the Moon and the U.S. announcing that they will endeavour to put men on the Moon in the next five years, will Europe lose its way to the Moon or can it still keep up?
I do not believe that Europe will ever make plans for having a full-fledged 100% European programme to the moon and I would perhaps not even recommend that. I think that, in space exploration in particular, Europe has always made a point to position itself as a capable and reliable partner, and this shall remain.
At the moment, I’m a bit concerned that so much is happening in the framework of major international initiatives and I have the feeling that Europe is not really involved in high level discussions while a positive and fruitful position must be negotiated if we want to avoid being just junior partners or subcontractors.
The key factors for fruitful collaboration or participation in the space endeavour are threefold. The first is to make a visible contribution, to be given a visible position. So far, Europe has been quite good at that through collaborations with the United States and others. The second is to make contributions that show substantial technological development and technological innovation. Third, if we want to be a respected partner that weighs on the evolution of the programme, we must negotiate to be part to the critical path of the project. My concern is that these projects seem to be progressing pretty fast at the moment. We do not know yet what will trigger Europe to come up with concrete decisions in this domain. If I take the example for instance of the ISS, there was a clear and strong political invitation made by the President of the United States to many heads of states in Europe inviting them to join the project. It actually worked very well and European member states decided to contribute through the European Space Agency. Then, ESA got the mandate to discuss with NASA, etcetera. Now, in the current situation, all the plans that the major players are making at the moment are national plans to which international partners are welcome if they wish to join. There is no vision for international cooperation.
We might even end up with individual national contributions, which would put an end to any European plans we might make. Unless firmly mandated by its member States with the associated budget, ESA cannot take the initiative to negotiate European participation at a political level on its own and can only prepare options in coordination with NASA. On its side, the European Union is not likely to address the issue of exploration. So at the moment, it’s a bit of a no-go situation and I hope that someday we will find the right trigger.
Let’s come to the last question and that pertains to the new brief you just published. What policies are required to unleash European New Space by both individual countries and European institutions?
This is a very interesting topic because I would say it’s one of the main issues that we have to tackle. All these new space initiatives will have long-term deep impacts on the way we will deal with the space business in the future, and it is not restricted to technical developments.
For instance, some U.S. companies, among others, have demonstrated that they have the capacity to fully handle the technical part of complex space systems such as launchers, regardless of funding which remains mostly public as you know. However, in the past, the development of space systems was the privilege of governments. It means that the stakes are now shifting away from development and manufacturing towards the use of the space systems at large. At the moment, I’m a bit concerned that Europe has not started reflecting on such consequences. For the time being, European institutions are still focusing on the development phases, since this is where they are comfortable. However, we need to reflect on what’s going to happen or what’s taking place on the demand side, and this is what is happening in the United States for example.
I don’t like to constantly take the example of the United States and I don’t mean that they are a model for Europe, but at least it’s interesting to analyse what they are doing. NASA in particular is shifting demand and are now committing in the long-term with a number of U.S. companies for the procurement of services. It is also true that the U.S. federal administration looks after its national companies; it supports their ramp-up phase, which is the most critical one in the life of of start-ups, and helps especially the most fragile or those facing critical business issues.
In Europe, a company in its early stage will easily attract the attention of policymakers. There are plenty of mechanisms to support innovation and early stages of developments. However, if it ends up in a critical situation in the commercial phase, then everybody would turn its back to it. We need a cultural change to overcome this posture, deeply rooted in the aversion of public entities to interfere in the competition taking place on the markets. Although this posture is fully understandable, there should be no dogma here and the possibility of setting up mechanisms such as European preference or anchor tenancy should be looked into.
The second thing is the long-term perspective. As I said, the demand side requires long-term stability, long-term predictability and long-term commitments. At the moment, such long-term commitments are just not foreseeable in Europe, would it be with ESA, which is bound to the programmatic decisions funded by its member States, or with the European Commission where the horizon is strictly limited to the term of the current Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF) and where no commitment can be envisaged beyond this boundary. This needs to be changed and we need to be creative in terms of procurement, in terms of budget conjugation in order to address this issue and I would say there are no legal limitations to that.
In fact, I think that it’s mostly a matter of implementation. Every year, the U.S. Congress can change and reconsider the whole federal budget. However, they have been able to invent a few things like the bipartisan approval of programs that guarantee continuity beyond any political alternance that might occur. Such an approach is certainly appropriate to ensure stability and predictability, which are essential ingredients to gain the confidence of private investors.
Jean-Jacques Tortora is the Director of the European Space Policy Institute in Vienna, Austria. Prior to his appointment to ESPI in June 2016, Mr. Tortora has served as the Secretary-General of ASD-Eurospace; Attaché for Space and Aeronautics at the Embassy of France in Washington, D.C.; and in various other space policy positions in the French government and in Arianespace.
SpaceWatch.Global thanks Jean-Jacques Tortora of European Space Policy Institute for the interview.