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View from Brussels: Out of the space race?

Image credit: ESA

The US made another leap forward in extra-planetary exploration last week with the return of SpaceX’s demo crewed launch. It is looking more and more as if Europe will be consigned to being an enthusiastic bit-player, rather than a fully-fledged runner in the space race.

Watching last weekend’s crowd-less edition of the British Formula One Grand Prix at Silverstone, your columnist was struck by the parallel between motorsport’s premier racing series and the international competition to put humans into space.

Mercedes-Benz has dominated the proceedings for nearly a decade, while the likes of Ferrari and Red Bull have only managed to launch half-hearted challenges to the German manufacturer during the same period. Victories here and there but never the top prize.

That state of affairs is much like Russia and China, which have only infrequently competed with the United States when it comes to space policy.

Then you have the F1 midfield runners, the likes of McLaren and Renault, which have promised a lot given their pedigree but almost always flattered to deceive. Their racing efforts are the equivalent of Europe’s forays into orbit.

Last week, the European Space Agency lauded the fact that one of its astronauts - veteran French spaceman Thomas Pesquet - will be aboard SpaceX’s second full launch in the first half of next year.

“I am thrilled to be the first European to fly on the new generation of US crewed spacecraft,” Pesquet said once the ink was dry on the contract. He will be part of a four-person mission alongside two Nasa personnel and a Japanese astronaut.

It reflects the hierarchy in the space race, where the big spenders reign supreme and the rest of the field have to make do with crumbs. Europe, after all, has to rely on Russia and now the US, again, to reach the heavens.

That dependence is likely to last at least another decade, if not longer, as Europe’s next-gen rocket, the Ariane 6, is not configured for crewed launches. It has still yet to make its debut flight, as coronavirus-based delays have moved the first launch back to early 2021.

Ariane 6 is purely geared towards upping Europe’s capacity to put hardware into orbit, a segment of the sector where the Old Continent admittedly leads the field. When it comes to GPS and Earth observation satellites, Europe can mix it with the best.

But the rocket’s lack of capacity to carry human capsules and even its one-shot-only capabilities - SpaceX’s vehicles are reusable after all - has led many to question whether Europe is already out of the space exploration race and is settling for the riches offered by space exploitation.

Things are poised on a knife-edge. The ESA’s member states granted the agency a beefed-up budget in late 2019, which should help fund projects as exciting as a new space station or even a lunar mission.

But the EU, which also contributes billions to the ESA’s coffers, last month settled on a long-term budget that fails to provide the agency with any extra firepower compared to its last offering.That was despite widespread calls for the bloc to pump an extra €3-5 billion into the mix.

There are ambitious plans coming out of Brussels regardless. The EU’s executive branch, the Commission, has spun off space policy into its own separate department along with defence matters, and the French official in charge, Thierry Breton, intends to boost its standing.

“Space is one of Europe’s strong points, and we’re giving ourselves the means to speed up,” the Commissioner said in late June, just before EU leaders shaved €3bn off the proposed budget.

“SpaceX has redefined the standards for launchers, so Ariane 6 is a necessary step, but not the ultimate aim: we must start thinking now about Ariane 7,” the former head of IT giant Atos added.

Giving Europe independent access to space for crewed missions is likely to be a question of politics rather than money at the end of the day. The ESA’s members would have to instruct the agency to make it a priority, which would then lead to a race between firms to provide the service.

Another thing that SpaceX has shown is that costs can be reduced when competition is added to the mix. Given Europe's vast resources of technical know-how dotted across the continent, the untapped potential is gigantic, despite the inability to match Nasa's huge budget.

Arianespace, the French company that designs the Ariane rocket family, says that a launcher with crewed capacity is not a question of technical feasibility. For the firm’s CEO, Stéphane Israël “nothing is impossible” and all he would need is the green light.

“The American manned space programme started again in 2012. Eight years later, there was this SpaceX manned flight. If Europe made the same choice, by the end of the decade, it would be possible,” he said in June.

Things are moving fast. Elon Musk’s company carried out a successful test of its Starship this week, the latest step towards a first Moon mission since 1972 and even a crewed launch to Mars.

As ever, the EU - and by extension Europe - does not lack the ambition of other big players. But the slow pace at which politics can move and an at times frustrating unwillingness to take the first step, looks like relegating Europe’s astronauts to the back of the grid.

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