Why Europe should look to the stars

July 20 marks 50 years since astronaut Neil Armstrong took that small step for man and giant leap for mankind, becoming Earth’s first ever visitor to the Moon. That moment in 1969 is etched in the annals of human history. And yet, cosmic exploration has stalled in the half century since. Probes journey to the planets and escape the solar system, satellites and space stations orbit Earth, but they’re nothing to match the Moon landings.

Today’s generation needs to renew its spirit of space endeavour. And the European Union could be the force that ignites that spark of adventure.

This might sound an unlikely proposition. The EU has other major priorities on its agenda, like fighting climate change, reviving economic growth, and managing Brexit. And Europe’s record so far in space, while often overlooked, is still modest compared to the achievements of the space race during the Cold War.

Yet this is exactly the moment for the EU to start thinking about space. Europeans need a positive project to look forward to and to associate the EU with. Space research and exploration could be this project.

This is not just about raising morale. Innovations in science and technology are the engines of the economy of the future. This is where the EU should be focusing its attention.

Space already makes strategic sense. Space-related technologies and services have become integral to our daily lives. They support our economies, our institutions, and our scientific research. Without them, our mobile phones and car navigation systems could not function. Digital and high-tech industries depend on space services and data to operate and innovate.

Space supports other industries such as the agriculture and transport. It plays an essential role in protecting the environment and tackling climate change, and it increases our security. Research and development linked to space produces some of the world’s most important breakthrough technologies.

The European space sector is also a leading industry by itself, providing work for over 320,000 people and generating some €52 billion a year. The Ariane programme has launched some 234 rockets over the past four decades – and Ariane 5 is so reliable that NASA is trusting it to launch the €10 billion James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) in 2021.

A lot is already happening. The EU adopted its Space Strategy for Europe in 2016 and last May, EU science ministers pledged to step-up cooperation on space activities at the first meeting of the EU’s Space Council for eight years. And NATO is developing its own space security strategy to combat the growing military risks around Earth’s orbit.

In its final plenary before the elections this year, the European Parliament adopted the EU’s next programmes for research and innovation, including a €16 billion space programme for 2021-2027 – the exact size of the budget will be negotiated in the coming months. Once finalised, the legislation will establish a new EU Agency for Space, which will gather all of the EU’s space projects under one roof. Between 2014 and 2020, over €12 billion will have been spent in global positioning and Earth observation programmes such as Galileo or Copernicus.

Yet, these ambitions pale in comparison of the projected US budget for NASA in 2020, around €18.5 billion. Indeed, the current public image of space research and exploration is dominated by the US, whether it is NASA, or the ventures created by tech titans, like Space X or Blue Origin. Even the impressive first image of a black hole was widely assumed to be an American achievement, although it was an international endeavour, achieved with EU support.

Yet there is no reason why space research and exploration should be led only by a few. Europe is already playing a major role in space, whether it is individual European countries, the EU or the European Space Agency (ESA). However, there is no clear European project capturing the public imagination.

The global context for space exploration is changing. New actors, both public and private, are entering the sector. Competition is increasing, new technologies are being developed. Again, Europe has a chance to help shape the space sector. The newly elected European Parliament and the next European Commission should ensure that space is an EU priority.

Space could even be a flagship EU project. Since the end of the Cold War, space exploration has been a symbol of multilateralism and international cooperation, values close to the EU’s heart. Engineers, researchers and astronauts from all over the world have worked together on countless international project related to space. The International Space Station, described as the most expensive single item ever constructed at around €150 billion, is a collaboration between the US, Russia, Japan, Canada and 13 ESA countries. Some even argue that Europe can fill the void in international scientific leadership as the US retreats from the world stage and China struggles to export its research model.

Investing in transnational science cooperation is also a potent answer to resurgent nationalism and populism. It exemplifies the European values of openness, ethics and belief in science. This matters at a time where transatlantic ties are under pressure. But cooperation between the EU and US on space projects would help both sides learn from each other and could foster the space technology of the future.

It is also an excellent example of a project where the European dimension makes sense. A space research fund could easily be created by European countries pooling resources together, with the EU coordinating the efforts of its member states in facilitating academic, scientific, and industrial cooperation.

Innovation is fundamental to Europe’s destiny. And space has always held a special place in our imagination. Today, as new technologies emerge and new players enter the fray, it is time for Europe to join the space race.

Author: Mathias van Malderghem Nagy

Image –  © European Union, 2019

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