7 November 2012. The new press release of ESPI draws the attention to the fundamental decisions to be made at the ESA Ministerial Council in Naples on 20-21 November. Will Europe safeguard its investments of the past and continue to be a substantial provider of space hardware and space based services or will it see critical high tech work and the related skill sets outsourced to more eager competitive nations? All countries and regions are depending on space for fundamental services and the question facing Europe in Naples is whether it will be a proactive creative force in meeting future societal needs or whether Europe’s needs will be fulfilled by other nations and Europe will be mostly a passive customer.
Crossroads in the Sky!
7 November 2012 - Europe is facing an important crossroads at the end of November when the ministers of the 20 Member States of the European Space Agency will get together to decide on Europe's involvement in space for the next 3-to-5 years. This might appear to be a very modest issue compared to the many other forks in the road facing Europe, but it is not. Thecoming years will decide whether Europe will have a meaningful role in this field in the future; and if the result is that we will not, it will have profound repercussions for our society at large.
One of the topics on the agenda of ministers is what to do with theEuropean launcher, Ariane. Should the current Ariane 5 model be replaced,further developed, or both? Lots of money is involved in thisdecision, and if ministers get it wrong hungry competitors, like Space-X with its new American rocket, Falcon 9, or Russian, Chinese, Indian rockets will make sure that Europe will no longer have independent access to space, or only at inhibitive cost.
Another topic is the future of Europe in manned space. Europe is a stakeholder in the International Space Station (ISS), a Euro 100 billion+ project with 5 partners, which is only now hitting its stride in terms of utilisation after many years of build-up of the facilities. Will Europe make a substantive future contribution and reap optimal benefitsfrom having European astronauts present at the station? And if so, will Europe make plans for what should happen after the International Space Station is decommissioned, possibly already in 2020? China is making amazingly fast progress in human space flight, and is building its own space stationat a very rapid pace. A post-2020 scenario where only China will have a space station along with the ability to launch taikonauts to it is entirely possible. The West may say: so what? Yet the image fall-out and loss of societal self-esteem will be huge, particularly if China follows up this feat with putting a man (or a woman, if they are clever) on the Moon. Again we may shrug - but our shoulders will be sagging!
The meeting of the ministers in Naples will make many other decisions on the utilisation of space, some of them less vexing than the ones mentioned. Yet all of these decisions are relevant for the central question of whether Europe will continue its climb in terms of space capability, or whether it will start a descent - something easy to initiate, but nigh impossible to stop once it has gathered pace.
To be fair, the European Space Agency and its member states are only one part of the equation; the European Union is another, particularly after the Lisbon Treaty has conferred a specific mandate on it for space. Hence the EU and the European Space Agency must learn to work together in a well-coordinated, sustainable fashion, and the ministers in Naples can give impetus to the effort to find the way to true complementarity between the two institutions.
There may be many ways to achieve happiness in the family of space faring nations, but none of them will allow for disunity of Europe or for a relaxation of the effort and resources put into space projects, as tempting as this might be at a time of economic crisis. Only clear, well-thought-out solutions will allow Europe to keep its place at the top table of space-faring nations. Hardly any nation is eager to see Europe dislodged, but geopolitics is not a forgiving game and with so many up-and-coming nations the consequence of taking the eyes off the ball will be relegation!
In the final analysis there are two fundamental themes in Naples: will Europe in-source or outsource the supply of the space infrastructure and services that all industrialised countries need, and, inseparably, will Europe invest in its future as a knowledge-based economy and society? The new economic powers in Asia have made their choice. They will provide space infrastructure to all comers at low prices and they will certainly invest in the technological prowess of its youth. Will Europe sit back, allow hi-tech work to leave its shores, and hope that Europe's next generations will somehow carve out a future for themselves without us putting the most advanced knowledge and technology at their disposal?