Space: European sovereignty threatened

“France’s greatness requires its presence in space.” In 1961, aware of the strategic importance of space, General de Gaulle set the country the goal of becoming the third space power after the Russians and the Americans. An ambition that would lead to the successful launch of the Ariane rocket program ten years later, guaranteeing Europe its sovereignty by giving it its own access to space.

But today this autonomy is under threat due to a lack of launchers. The future Ariane-6 is already more than three years behind schedule, its first launch having been postponed until the last quarter of 2023. Its little sister Vega-C missed its first commercial launch on December 20 and had to be destroyed in flight. The missions will resume once the causes of the failure have been analyzed and the corrective action taken.

Arianespace, the company that markets and manages flights, will therefore be without a new rocket for several months. Private customers are likely to turn to American or Indian launchers. The prolonged absence of a European solution would complicate the task for governments that do not want to entrust foreign companies with putting military satellites into orbit.

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Space Europe’s ambition to stay in the race against the Americans and the Chinese is being seriously questioned. Its operating model, too, as space, a domain long reserved for large national agencies, was shaken up by Elon Musk. With SpaceX and its Falcon rockets, the American billionaire has imposed his rules there for ten years. Everything is faster, cheaper and its rockets are reusable.

The issue of “geographic returns”

This flexibility contrasts with the cumbersome European processes, which are often a source of delays and extra costs. Faced with the SpaceX offensive, the European Space Agency (ESA) responded by launching the Ariane-6 and Vega-C programs in December 2014. But it did so without changing its organization and, above all, by maintaining its rule of “geographical return”, a practice consisting in redistributing an industrial burden to each state corresponding to its financial contribution. Thus, a country can get one of its companies to participate in a project, even if it is not the most efficient in its field. This also allows it to acquire technologies, as was the case for Germany and Italy against France.

This rule is more and more troublesome in light of the many projects of start-up companies and especially the American billionaires Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos. Especially because initiatives are becoming more numerous and require quick reactions.

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Last example: the spread of high-speed Internet from space. Elon Musk has established himself with his constellation of Starlink satellites. By making it available to Ukrainians, from the start of the war against Russia, and now to the Iranian society in revolt, he demonstrates the crucial importance of such a communication tool.

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In response, in order not to be dependent on a private actor and to be independent, the EU announced in mid-November the launch of its own ultra-secure network, called IrisĀ².

In order to stick to a very tight schedule for the commissioning of this constellation from 2027, Brussels has decided to forgo “geographical feedback” from ESA in its tenders in favor of the manufacturers’ technical competence, innovation and efficiency. A first that must absolutely be a success and become the standard that applies to all space programs. European sovereignty is at stake.

The world

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