There is no doubt that the European Commission has the heart in the right place in matters refugee. In October last year the Commission started the Science4Refugees initiative by virtue of which universities and research institutions can make refugee scientists and researchers aware of open posts available to them through the EURAXESS recruitment platform. Participating institutions are officially recognised as refugee-welcoming organisations. A significant number of institutions have signed up - many universities but also intergovernmental organisations like EMBL. At last count, 332 vacancies were being advertised under the scheme, meaning that qualified refugees are encouraged to apply, but not that the posts are reserved exclusively for refugees. The Helmholtz Association, in cooperation with the German Federal Employment Agency, has introduced a similar scheme, where the ambition is to employ between 10 and 20 refugees per Helmholtz Centre.

These initiatives have lit a torch which the space community should eagerly grab as well! We pride ourselves on our internationalist outlook, and it would flank this outlook well to see Young Graduate Training Programmes for refugees crop up in the space agencies, and to see space agencies and space research institutes be recognised as refugee-welcoming organisations, with vacancies being posted on the EURAXESS recruitment platform as open also for refugee applicants. Perhaps the space industry can band together as well, and create their own initiatives allowing refugees to pursue their dreams in our sector!
The standard argument against this sort of initiative is that security concerns militate against. But this is surely not right. Some of the current participating institutions in Science4refugees do security relevant work, but have found ways to deal with the issue, possibly through increased security screening and of course by ring-fencing particularly sensitive technology and information. In fact, these are topics that are not exclusive to refugee applicants, and the space sector has a long record of being able to deal with them.


Another standard argument against helping is that employment in the space sector is such a privilege that it should be reserved for European citizens. Also this cannot be right! We encourage refugees to integrate and be full participants in our societies. This being the case also refugees must have access to the most attractive jobs, and helping talented refugees to fulfil their potential is surely not only serving their interests, but ours as well!

A most probate way to make friends is to stand with them in the time of trouble. Many refugees are expecting to return to their countries when dangers have passed, and many will be likely to become influential there. It would be very good and very opportune if they would look back at their time in Europe with warm feelings and a recognition that we helped them in the best possible way at their moment of need. The space domain has an important role to play in this respect, being hi-tech and iconic, and it is high time that we step up to the plate!

It is a truism to say that space is geopolitically important. The Space Race and the ISS have taught us this lesson, and, lest we should forget, China has reminded us forcefully with the Chinese Space Station (CSS) and the possible ambition to send humans back to the Moon (see the ESPI book, ‘When China Goes to the Moon….’). With the CSS China has also shown how effective the outreach to developing nations can be using space. Hardly a speech goes by without China stressing that that it is open to cooperation on the CSS particularly with developing countries. This goes hand-in-hand with China offering satellite packages, including launch, to developing countries in conjunction with natural resource deals.

There are lessons to be learned by Europe from this! Europe could, as do others, offer satellite systems as part of Official Development Assistance (ODA), for example. Yet, conditionality of ODA is a questionable concept, which the West largely abandoned quite a while ago. Still, being helpful to developing countries by finding ways to put space at the service of development is unquestionably good and, in general, much more can be done in this respect – not for the purpose of pushing space, mind you, but in order to help developing countries address infrastructure and information challenges!

The world is becoming smaller, more interconnected, more interdependent. Abject poverty is, thankfully, becoming rarer in all regions of the world and the information society is taking hold even where money is very scarce. This is dynamic that must be reinforced, as so well expressed by the Sustainable Development Goals agreed in New York last September.

It is therefore important to remember that space has an important role to foster societal development in the underprivileged parts of the world; is an indispensable part of the glue necessary to create a harmonious and prosperous future for all. It is ugly to say, and to think, but the reality is that there is a strong own interest for the ‘West’ in deploying space in the service of developing countries to a much higher degree than currently. We fret about inequality within our nations not only from the perspective of morals but also from the perspective of social harmony. Exactly the same considerations are true among nations, and this we should heed. Space is important for broad-based prosperity and for good governance and hence the utility of space must be much increased for developing countries. This is not only right, but also an investment in constructive global co-existence and the promotion of European values!

Europe should not assume that the market will on its own lift all boats in the best possible fashion. In Europe we have realised that accompanying measures are necessary, and therefore we have the programmes of ESA and the national agencies. Until now these programmes have mainly served European purposes. There is, however, an urgent need to learn from ourselves, and create a dedicated European programme on space for developing countries. Such a programme can be funded from traditional space sources, but also by development assistance from the EU and national development agencies and perhaps even by foundations and NGOs with very specific needs. The important thing is to realise and accept that such a programme cannot be a technology promotion exercise. Such a programme must reflect the needs on the ground in developing countries – and governance structures of such a programme must be designed accordingly!

We owe it to all to give space a further geopolitical dimension – and to use space not only to build bridges between superpowers, but to further the future of those countries that until now have not been in full possession of the benefits of space. That requires a targeted effort and a targeted programme and Europe should be in the lead!

Well-meaning people are reluctant to support active debris removal, because debris removal vehicles can be considered weapons. He who can net, hook or otherwise capture a satellite can do so both for peaceful and for hostile purposes.

Well-meaning people also acknowledge that states might have good reasons to resist that satellites under their supervision and control be interfered with by other states. If satellites under the supervision and control of one state is captured by another this might mean that technology will be stolen and for security relevant satellites, such as spy satellites, this might be critical.

Space lawyers explain that the space treaties mean that the consent of a state which has supervision and control of a satellite is required for another state to remove it.

The concern about debris removal vehicles being also weapons is very real. Yet, it can be argued, as does my friend David Koplow, that all satellites are weapons because as long as you can steer them you can steer them in such a fashion that they will collide with and destroy enemy satellites. However, I do not think it is quite as easy to use satellites as weapons as one may assume, because of the imperfections of conjunction analysis and because the unwilling target may take evasive action, and that is particularly true in relation to removal vehicles that not only has to find the target but also has to capture it. It can thus be argued that removal vehicles are less dangerous weapons than normal satellites that may be used for kinetic impact à la a missile.

The technology theft argument is also less persuasive than one would think at first sight. An unsteerable satellite will often be in that condition because it has run out of fuel. That means that it is old, and probably not very interesting technologically. But even for unsteerable satellites that may have malfunctioned for other reasons, and hence might be younger and with more interesting technology, it is limited what can be learned through the cameras on the removal vehicle, and capturing and bringing it back to Earth would be illogical in a debris removal sense since the rational thing to do would be to put the dysfunctional satellite into a graveyard orbit.

As for space law, it can be argued that the space treaties did not aim at the debris situation but at things like liability and unhampered use. Analogies to the law of salvage and to general principles on avoidance of harm may lead to the conclusion that the consent of the state of supervision and control is not necessary to remove debris, some of which might not be identifiable in advance of removal if a fragment only.

If you have residual concerns despite the above arguments there is an elegant solution, a solution that in any event might be the best one to tackle what is in the final analysis a community task (and we can then discuss the financing). The creation of an international organisation dedicated to debris removal would mean that consent to removal would have been given a priori, the concern about spying would be allayed by creating a corps of international removal engineers adhering to a behavioural code similar to that of IAEA inspectors – and giving the state whose satellite was being removed a right to accompany and ‘inspect’ the removal process would further buttress this.

Finally, the concern that removal vehicles could be understood as space weapons and that their introduction would open the floodgates on space weaponisation could be eliminated by banning all removal vehicles except those operated by the international debris removal organisation.

For such a solution to come about the international community would have to come together in a big way, and although one should not be defeatist, this may appear unlikely at the present time, even if all agree that debris is an almost existential question for the space community. So perhaps you just have to make do with my arguments why active debris removal is legal and unconcerning even without a new treaty and a new international organisation!



The space community is rather insular and still very orientated towards technology push! We are so convinced of the excellence of our wares and their general utility that we sometimes forget to listen to the users, the potential users, the youth. By this we do ourselves a disservice and, even worse, we do society at large a disservice.

It is truism to talk about the transversal nature of space utility – we know that space assets are involved in such a great variety of societal activities, telecoms, weather, climate change and environmental monitoring, civil protection, navigation. Space is an enabler, and only space science can be argued to be, to some extent, an end in itself. Even human space flight has great enabling effect: it inspires the youth to get into STEM educations, for instance.
Given this prevalence of the enabling function it is curious that there is not more attention to the importance of listening to those who are enabled or could be enabled. This might be changing, but still push beats pull by a large margin. And transversal dialogue mechanisms are few and far between!
Of course, ESA has the Council and its programme board structure which through governmental representation ensure strong involvement of Member States and thus a degree of civil society representation, but truth be told the conversations are still very much space community conversations and the degree of transversality could probably be further optimised. The EU and EC involvement in space provides a necessary political dimension, but capturing all the enabling functions of space is not easy in administrative structures that naturally break down according to specialisations. The involvement of the European Parliament has been highly beneficial in terms of civil society influence, yet is but one prong in an approach that should have many, both at the international and the national level.
Regular meetings between the space community and the Chief Scientists of governments and the European Commission are one way to strengthen both transversality and civil society involvement. The same is true for regular meetings and dialogue with the important non-space international governmental and non-governmental organisations. It is noticeable that a number of structured dialogue mechanisms on space exist between the EC, ESA and important space-faring countries, such as the US, Russia, China, South Africa. But no such structured dialogues on space exist with the UN or its Specialized Agencies, NATO, OSCE, or with the Red Cross, the Gates Foundation, the Global Fund against AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, World Wildlife Fund, Doctors without Borders, etc. And in an age of social media, much more can be done to structure dialogues with ordinary, interested citizens, not just to push space, but to hear their opinions and harvest their suggestions. Crowdsourcing is big in business, and should be so also in political decision-making!
In short, there are many things that can and should be done to reinforce the dialogue with civil society and foster cross-fertilisation across the many borders that society inevitably builds when it becomes more and more specialized. This challenge is not unique to space, but is very pronounced for space because of its incredibly wide societal reach and huge untapped potential! To unlock all the promise of space the ear must be to the ground on which the normal citizen treads!

This is a blog post written by my colleague Arne Lahcen who is a Resident Fellow at ESPI.

As if by a strange stroke of luck, the proof of existence of gravitational waves follows exactly 100 years after Einstein theorised them as part of his General Theory of Relativity of 1916. It appears that the beauty of physics is not only contained within its purity and abstraction, but also expressed in the evolution process and milestones of the study field itself! At first sight, a century might seem a very long timespan between the conception and experimental confirmation of a theory, especially through our eyes, living in the tech-savvy and ever faster changing world of today. Yet, such lags are not uncommon in the realm of paradigm-shifting scientific puzzles. In evolutionary biology, for instance, there was a 94 year gap between the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species (1859) and the discovery of the DNA molecule in 1953.

The astrophysicists and cosmologists of today are as excited about the detection of gravitational waves as final-year students are about the high school prom – and they have strong reasons to be so! In the first instance, this event can be seen as a crowning achievement of a long, intense and fruitful journey and, as a maturing process in our quest to create understanding. A light in the darkness telling us that we are on the right path towards an unknown destination. But there is more. Just like the high school prom, this milestone heralds the dawn a new era; one of new opportunities and upcoming changes. More specifically, it announces a phase transition in our study of the cosmos.

Until now all astronomical and astrophysical efforts were based on the observation of electromagnetic waves. In fact, our entire current understanding of the universe was constructed in this fashion – from Copernicus’ and Galileo’s findings to the Hubble Space Telescope. Thanks to modern age advances in technology, we have become able to gauge realities previously hidden from our eyes – making us see where we were blind before and leaving no part of the electromagnetic spectrum unexposed. We could see thousands of colour tints. Yet, we remained deaf to the beauty of sound. From now on, however, we will be able to perceive a totally new reality within the cosmos. Humanity is no longer only capable of looking into the cosmos, but also to ‘hear’ it!

The fact that the discovery was made so quickly after the sensitivity of the LIGO instruments was upgraded makes it extra promising. Earth’s “giant inner ear to the cosmos” seems to have picked up on a substantial – and thus potentially revealing – part of reality. This hope is reinforced by the fact that gravitational waves were travelling through space-time well before the cosmos became transparent to light, thereby shifting our observational horizon closer to the Big Bang itself.

But how do we as a society properly assess the full potential of this discovery? And, how can the new understanding generated by this scientific discovery be communicated in an understandable fashion? In spite of the wide media coverage of the discovery, the public at large tends to stay somewhat indifferent at best. In some cases there was even some cynicism on the importance of the event, alluding to its supposed marginal impact on humanity compared to other unfolding events. This is not helped by the fact that scientists, cautious by nature, tend to be rather conservative in their predictions about the future.

As our understanding of the cosmos and reality becomes ever more complex, more and more branches of society seem to alienate themselves from the dialogue on the implications of scientific breakthroughs. But this might be because we go about it in the wrong way. Perhaps increasing complexity should be matched by simplification as well? Einstein himself said: “Make things as simple as possible, but not simpler”. So perhaps we need to explain in a story-telling fashion as well as in terms of equations and formulae. I am no scientist and therefore I am in no position to claim to understand – let alone explain – the true meaning of this discovery. But I do know that an individual who can both see AND hear will perceive and comprehend far more than someone who can only see. Experience teaches us that once a design brings a benefit, its performance and complexity will most likely increase very rapidly in a short period of time. In biology this is called evolution, in technology we call it innovation. Voices critical about the importance of this discovery are probably forgetting that so many of the current daily applications in life stem from discoveries that once were subject of ridicule for their supposed lack of utility. Some thinkers argue that just like ant colonies, human society is a super-organism. This means that we can jointly generate capabilities that go far beyond the sum of our individual abilities. It also means that the highest social structure, global society in our case, will display characteristics of an individual.

Looking at the level of the human super-organism from an outward-orientated perspective, it seems that the organism has finally developed a sense of hearing after centuries of improving sight. The cracking of the fabric of space-time we are hearing, caused by cataclysmic events distant in space and time, is the prelude of a new era of discovery. Also on this journey Europe is embarked with the European Space Agency preparing LISA, a mission that will allow for advanced detection of gravitational waves from space. Lisa, we are looking forward to you being our new ear!