As a scholar of European Space Policy, Julia Lohse shares her perspective on Europe’s role in the resurgent global turn to the stars.
Last year marked the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing. Many believe that this “giant leap for mankind” was a result of the competition between the Soviet Union and the United States in the Cold War. Fifty years later, the big space-faring powers are declaring a renewed space race. During the fifth meeting of the National Space Council, Mike Pence, Vice President of the United States, said: “make no mistake about it – we’re in a space race today, just as we were in the 1960s, and the stakes are even higher”. Yes, the stakes are higher but are we really in a space race?
The stakes are higher because space is not what it used to be fifty years ago. Instead of two major space-faring nations in the 1960s, we now have more than 70 countries around the world that have some sort of space program. Some of them are conducting very challenging missions. In January 2019, China aced the first-ever soft landing on the moon’s mysterious far side with its robotic Chang’e 4 mission. This mission is part of the “race to the moon and beyond” that has been going on for some years.
The race to the moon and beyond which is driven largely by national pride and prestige is, however, only part of the broader dimension of the space race which in turn is driven by many more factors such as economics, philanthropic activities, and testing new business models as Dr. John M. Horack, holder of the Neil Armstrong Chair in Aerospace Policy at Ohio State University, reveals in the Anthill Podcast Series “To the moon and beyond” by the Conversation.
we observe an economic value chain growing around the space industry
Dr. Horack argues that what we observe in space is rather an explosion in activities than it is a race. To a large extent, this explosion is propelled not only by nations but by commercial players. The three most famous players among them are Elon Musk with his SpaceX company, Jeff Bezos with Blue Origin, and Richard Branson with Virgin Galactic. With their combination of big visions and big money, they are able to drive fast-paced innovation leading to reduced costs. As a result, we observe an economic value chain growing around the space industry.
One of the major space activities nowadays consists of launching satellites into space as satellites have become smaller, more cost-effective and more easily deployable. As citizens of modern society, we heavily depend on the data and services provided by those satellites in terms of communication, earth observation and navigation, and many other vital services. The space industry is expected to grow to a trillion dollars by the 2040s. That is not surprising since space has an immense potential to generate the currency of the future – data.
The space industry is expected to grow to a trillion dollars by the 2040s
But what is Europe’s role in all this? Right now, when it comes to space, think of Europe as the global good guy in the orbit, keen on making a Euro on the side. Europe is pursuing important and worthy space programmes like Galileo, a hyper-accurate European alternative to GPS, and Copernicus, a world-beating Earth-observation satellite system. These projects are less headline-provoking than moon landings and Mars missions, but they are practical and help Europe advance in meaningful space research and capacity-building.
So far, the EU as the major coordinating force in Europe for space activities has been vague about its objective in space even though we can most certainly observe a movement towards more strategic thinking and international engagement. France is pushing heavily in this regard and NATO has recognised space as one of its operational areas besides air, land, sea, and cyber.
Europe should not give in to the narrative of a renewed space race that requires weaponization to secure our access to space
While I am strong advocate for Europe playing a crucial role in the resurgent turn to space, Europe should not give in to the narrative of a renewed space race that requires weaponization to secure our access to space. Norms of behaviour and rules of the road need to be established for space before it becomes a 21st-century ‘wild west’ of technology and (military) activity. That is where Europe should invest its time, effort and resources. Weaponization is not the solution. This would only lead to insecurity and to the exacerbation of the space debris crisis.
The power of space in giving perspective to human beings is not to be underestimated. Hence, I remain optimistic that space can be a highly cooperative realm of human interaction if we get it right. Simonetta Di Pippo, Director of UNOOSA, confirms this: “While we may disagree on earth, what we can achieve together in space is inspiring. Space unites us towards common goals”. Hopefully, European decision-makers will remain optimistic as well and refrain from joining the global narrative of a militarised space race. Let’s all make sure that they do.
Cover Photo: Space Shuttle (Pixabay)