Mankind is fascinated by space. In the last century, it took its first cautious steps into the endless expanse – and made Earth’s orbit an essential part of our modern everyday lives. Whether it’s combating climate change, planning new roads, or providing everyday services such as Internet access while camping or watching TV with the family in the evening, nothing works without data from satellites anymore. Sovereign access to space is therefore indispensable in this regard.
Satellites are also central to Europe’s security and sovereignty, as demonstrated most recently by Russia’s war of aggression on Ukraine. For communication between military units, but also for rapid assistance and coordination in the event of environmental disasters or for independent cloud services, the European Union and its member states are planning a number of programs, such as the IRIS2 constellation. To build this infrastructure, Europe needs autonomous access to space. This is promised in the future by Ariane 6. However, with the last flight of Ariane 5 fast approaching and the delay of Ariane 6, Europe will soon lose this autonomous access to space indefinitely.
The ability to launch its own launch vehicles enables Europe to place satellites in orbit independently and flexibly. Both in terms of timing and mission duration or scope. As the Ariane 6 is still in development, Europe will soon be lacking its own launch vehicle and will be forced to rely on third party launch service providers. The reasons for this are home-grown and include entrenched and sluggish European structures, traditionalized monopolies, and a lack of decisiveness and willingness to invest. With the Georeturn principle, for example, everyone is happy, money flows, national supply programs are running, jobs are being preserved – no one has any reason to change anything. But Ariane 6 is severely delayed, overpriced and technologically treading water.
By their very nature, government programs are simply more sluggish and risk-averse than the free economy. The U.S. has shown that there is another way: With the shuttle gone, NASA put its needed services out to public bid in funding programs and asked commercial, competitive companies for their ideas and solutions. The selected contractors defined their technical goals and had to prove and demonstrate their capabilities. Contractors with underperformance measured against progress were eliminated from the funding program, and the freed-up funds were passed on to the remaining contractors. This is of critical importance. In this way, for example, by eliminating Rocketplane Kistler early on through a milestone-based review during the COTS program, more than $170 million was allocated to the successful development of Orbital Science’s Cygnus spacecraft. Such co-funding programs could also be used in Europe for the effective and efficient development of innovative and globally competitive launch vehicles.
In Europe, seven companies are working on launch vehicles of various sizes, many planning their first launch in the next two years. Against this background, the question arises: Why is the European Commission awarding the Copernicus contracts to Ariane 6 and Vega-C until 2027, when commercial providers will also be on the market by then?
Instead, it is making it easy on itself and awarding all contracts for the next five years in one go, while NewSpace launchers are stuck in ESA feasibility studies. However, multiple, long-term orders for Ariane 6 – also without a first flight – don’t seem to be a problem. As a result, ESA is depriving NewSpace companies of an important source of capital, which could actually accelerate their development once again – making alternative services available to ESA more quickly. A clear lose-lose situation, which can quite easily be turned into a win-win situation.
The way space and rockets are supported in Europe must be fundamentally reformed. ESA and the EU should not develop launchers themselves – institutionally – but act as anchor customers, ensuring demand for launches, co-financing the development and then purchase their services. The launch service providers must meet ESA and EU requirements by driving the development of their concepts individually and demonstrate their successes through milestones.
Hardly any space vehicle is as well-known as the American space shuttle. Nevertheless, the U.S. government has parted with it. The main reason was the huge amount of launch, construction and maintenance costs. Therefore the U.S. made a courageous decision to retire the shuttle to a museum. They then entered a decade of dependency in human spaceflight, but used the time to revolutionize the way they fund and develop space technology. Europe, too, must start thinking now about how to succeed Ariane 6. The same mistakes must be avoided. And so all options should be explored, including commercial ones. The following is necessary for the Ariane 6 successor:
The institutional development of Ariane 6 will cost over four billion euros. How many such commercial development programs could be set up with that? Backing only one horse was a strategic mistake, the consequences of which Europe is now feeling and which must not be repeated. In the future, several commercial projects must be funded in parallel to achieve the best possible result. To do this, there must be a fundamental willingness to leave well-trodden paths, to take risks and to support the industry strategically and financially. Then Europe can sustainably secure its sovereign access to space and defend its global interests.