This week the United States announced it was giving contracts to two companies to transport astronauts to the International Space Station, thus reducing dependency on Russia. Europe’s space ambitions risk being left far behind.
NASA selected Boeing and SpaceX, owned by Elon Musk, the founder of PayPal and Tesla, as the winners of the contracts for the Commercial Crew Development program, which should see the Americans transporting their astronauts into space again by as early as 2017.
The Americans have for years relied on Russia’s Soyuz rockets for transport to the ISS, which costs €71 million, or $91 million, per seat. Mr. Musk has said he can bring that cost down to around €21 million. But it is not only the expenditure that has prompted the United States to seek alternatives. There is also a threat that Moscow will impede the rideshare opportunities amid political tensions over the Ukraine crisis.
To European ears, plans for a Mars mission and billionaires funding spaceships are like news from another planet. Europe does have an ambitious aerospace industry and the political will to play an important role in space, but at the moment the Europeans appear to standing in their own way, tangled up in struggles for national advantages which threatens to see them falling further behind. Especially because not only the Americans are heavily investing in space – but also the Chinese.
Chinese President Xi Jinping has expressly stated that he wants his country to become a space superpower. A year ago China completed a 15-day manned mission to dock an orbiting space laboratory. In late 2013 it had its first robotic lunar landing and plans to launch a manned mission to the moon within the next few years. Beijing also has its eyes on a Mars mission. There is undoubtedly a geopolitical purpose to its program, as the country is demonstrating that it would be well equipped for any future “Star Wars.”
In Europe, the latest example of damaging procrastination is the dispute over the Ariane rocket, the signature project of European space travel. The rockets are launch vehicles manufactured for the European Space Agency (ESA) program by Airbus Defense and Space, a subsidiary of the European multi-national Airbus.
The current Ariane 5 is considered efficient and reliable, but it has become a second choice in launching commercial satellites, the most important source of income for the program. When it comes to acquiring new orders, the giant rocket is handicapped by the fact that it is always required to carry more than one commercial satellite. In addition, costs are approximately 30 percent higher than those of SpaceX. As a result, once loyal Ariane customers like Luxembourg satellite operator Astra have taken their business to SpaceX.
To European ears, plans for a Mars mission and billionaires funding spaceships are like news from another planet.
But instead of reacting quickly, the Germans and French, in particular, are bogged down in an endless dispute. The Germans want to continue developing the current Ariane 5, while the French favor building a completely new Ariane 6. According to industry insiders, German production sites would benefit more from the first option, while building a new Ariane 6 would be more favorable to the French. At least the manufacturers have finally reacted to the problem. This summer, Airbus Defence and Space and the French Safran Group announced the formation of a joint space venture, with the goal of streamlining and reducing costs for the production of the current Ariane.
The Ariane isn’t the only project that has been the source of conflict among the countries that are part of the European Space Agency. The Europeans have also abandoned the Automated Transfer Vehicle, or ATV, a cargo spacecraft that supplied the ISS for years. The module, which is built in Bremen, is too expensive for the French, in particular. A plan to use the capsule to transport European astronauts was abandoned long ago. As a result, after only five launches, the €3 billion ATV is now history. European participation in the ISS is also tenuous, as cash-strapped Europe has yet to come up with the necessary funds for the next few years.
Bad luck is also part of the mix. The scheduled launch of the first two Galileo satellites malfunctioned in early August. The E.U.-funded satellite navigation system was designed to compete with the U.S.-based GPS, or Global Positioning System. But instead of heading for their intended positions, the two satellites were launched into incorrect orbits. It is now unclear when Galileo will become operational and at what cost.
Nevertheless, the ESA remains an important player in space, especially when it comes to research. Its Rosetta spacecraft has just embarked on a spectacular exploration of the comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, and it will land a unmanned spacecraft on the comet in November. The science mission is costing the Europeans more than €1 billion.
The U.S. announcement of plans to return to manned space flight should therefore be regarded as a positive signal on this side of the Atlantic. It is likely that the Americans will in the future need the Europeans as partners for major projects, such as their intended mission to Mars.
Markus Fasse is a Handelsblatt correspondent in Munich, where he covers the aerospace and automobile industries. To contact the author: firstname.lastname@example.org