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View from Brussels: EU space ambitions have a down-to-Earth purpose

Europe is starting to look serious about playing catch-up in the space race. The ambition is there but will its small steps add up to one giant leap forward?

The EU flag features 12 yellow stars, and the Union is increasingly shooting for their celestial counterparts, harbouring big dreams to punch above its weight in the global space race.

In late May, the EU’s Space Council called for an overarching space strategy, to boost advances in the sciences and areas as diverse as public health and climate change. Taking space more seriously is also meant to help build European identity and enhance the continent’s standing in diplomatic circles.

That focus on the non-scientific aspects of space policy conjures up shades of the USA’s quest to put a human on the Moon, 50 years after Neil Armstrong took his famous first steps there.

At least Europe doesn’t have to start from scratch, as the European Space Agency (ESA) has been up and running since 1975 and has sent numerous astronauts on missions. Although the two bodies are not actually affiliated, there is a strong link between the EU and ESA, which is meant to act as Europe’s gateway to space.

To date, ESA’s main shortcoming is that it has to rely on the US or Russia to get its astronauts into orbit, as its own launchers are restricted to non-manned missions.

That situation is unlikely to change any time soon, due to the immense costs and resources, but the Europeans have at least teamed up with Nasa to build the next generation of spacecraft, the Orion multi-purpose crew vehicle. Orion will be capable of ferrying astronauts to the ISS and even the Moon and beyond. ESA’s Aurora project is prepping for an eventual manned mission to Mars in the 2030s but will need to collaborate with its partners to pull off the next leap forward in space exploration.

Estimates vary but one former Nasa engineer puts the price of a single mission in 2035 at over $230bn. For a full programme like the Apollo landings, the costs would top $1tn. When you consider that ESA’s annual budget is just over $6bn and Nasa’s is $20bn, the gap in spending power is clear to see. Although ESA has had success with its payload-carrying Ariane rockets, it simply cannot marshal the same resources or political backing as the Americans.

Not that Nasa’s path to the stars is an easy one just because it’s got a bigger cheque book: Donald Trump’s latest confusing tweets on the subject, which first supported a return to the Moon and then called it “so 50 years ago”, muddy the waters.

Completely independent space exploration may be a non-starter for Europe, but it doesn’t seem to have killed off the ambition. In January, one top EU official suggested that Brussels should set up its own ‘space force’, a year after Trump announced the creation of a new space-based wing of the US military.

That would be a huge, and unlikely, leap forward for EU defence policy, given countries are already sceptical and wary of joint efforts down here on terra firma.

Any cooperation that has already happened, like consulting on procurement needs, has got the green light primarily on cost-saving grounds. Shifting defence policy to the cosmos will have the complete opposite effect. But that didn’t stop the EU official in question saying the discussion needs to be had. Neither did an announcement by Netflix just one week earlier that a new sitcom based around Trump’s Space Force will debut soon.

European militaries already leverage existing space tech, even if they aren’t blasting stormtroopers up there yet. The Galileo global positioning satellite system is mostly for civilian use but will be used for military applications by some countries.

Militarisation of space is one thing, exploiting it for its potentially unlimited resources is another. In Europe, the surprising first-mover is Luxembourg. The tiny Grand Duchy was the first in the world to adopt regulations on extraplanetary mining and is a big fan of the idea of digging precious and raw materials out of asteroids.

In May, Luxembourg signed a space commerce pact with the US, a quasi-agreement that is meant to be the template for future alliances. Russia has also made overtures to the state.

Luxembourg will have to tread carefully though, because it will find itself on shaky ground if these agreements spill over into the domain of trade policy. The EU has the exclusive right to broker commerce deals and will not take kindly to a member going solo.

So Europe will have to form international partnerships to stay in the space race, but it is far from being a mere bit-player. The big budget may be lacking but the ideas keep coming. Thankfully, there’s plenty of room up there for them all to play out.

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