ESA Director general Jan Woerner talks about the the role of Space in the future of Europe
While facing challenges such as terrorism, economic crisis and rampant Euroscepticism, it is of the utmost importance that we sustain our European values and give positive signs for the future. Europe’s heritage has many facets including freedom, democracy, human rights, cultural diversity, philosophy and the arts, science and development, and not least pioneering and exploration. These values are endangered by the lack of willingness to take risks in areas such as space activities, by burdensome administrative actions and a focus on individual advantage at the expense of solidarity. The result of the “Brexit” referendum shows this situation in a very dramatic way.
What is the way out? Who can contribute and in what way?
At times, decisions at European level have been perceived by the citizens as ridiculous, imposing rules on the shape of cucumbers and the like. On the other hand, for prosperous trade to take place we need common regulations, and the considerable benefits of Europe’s single market should allow us to forgive the occasional excesses caused by regulatory zeal. In any case, the time has come to make some adjustments and to give positive signals – regarding the status of the economy, but also our common values – to citizens and to national governments.
Space has the power to provide such encouraging signals as long as it is not hindered by excessive regulation and bureaucracy; the fact is, the economic impact of space activities is substantial, producing a direct “return on investment” and considerable value for society.
In the last fifty years, thanks to space activities, we have – step by step – put in place an infrastructure that, today, plays an indispensable role in our daily lives.
Coming from “Space 1.0”, defined by the scientific observation of the Universe by astronomers, half a century ago space entered – with Space 2.0 – into a race in which prestige was the dominating factor; spacefaring nations in the era of Space 2.0 were heavily involved in this “space race” that led to the Apollo age. With Space 3.0 – from the 1980s until today – activities opened up to include broader applications like telecommunication, navigation and Earth observation. It was this era that also saw the emergence of the International Space Station. By that time, space was better understood to be of value to society and the economy, rather than being simply a matter of prestige or emblematic foreign policy goals in direct competition with rival powers. Space, in a sense, “came down to Earth” and became a key, inseparable part of our knowledge-based society and economy through a wide range of assets and space-based applications.
It is now time to reinvent space for the future; let us call it Space 4.0.
Within Space 4.0, the area covered by space activities, already very broad, is now expanding in the direction of commercialisation, public and private activities, spin-off and spin-in, and more direct interaction with society. This also leads to new roles for agencies and industry that transcend the traditional definitions of purchaser and supplier.
Space is evolving from being the privilege of the governments of a few spacefaring nations to a sector seeing engagement from governments around the world, the emergence of private actors and inclusive interaction between governments, the private sector, society and politics.
Industry is entering into a new era characterised by revolutionised design, production and management mechanisms; space as a sector will follow, and in some areas is already following, this trend, as a result “commoditising” spacecraft manufacturing while all other strategic features are retained.
As the space sector matures and becomes more interconnected with other technology fields, innovation in space technologies and applications is increasingly linked to innovation in other fields and parts of society; and vice-versa: many generaluse technologies – such as artificial intelligence, advanced robotics and threedimensional printing – have great potential for applications in space. In this dynamic, evolving scenario, the seeds of future economic growth are planted. It is the role of ESA to shape this new era.
ESA is redefining the way it operates and mediates, creating the conditions for fostering innovation, and supporting its stakeholders, which include industry, SMEs, operators, researchers, academia and governments. To allow the unfolding of a seamless chain of innovation, providing uninterrupted and rapid development from idea to product and service, ESA will enable, foster and intensify exchanges and interactions from academia to end-users, across all actors and stakeholders, and develop new policies, programmatic frameworks and processes.
To this effect, ESA will pursue an integrated innovation strategy and a further optimisation of its industrial policy. Seizing the opportunity of the development of a non-traditional “newspace” industry, ESA will open up to new partnerships including with non-traditional space companies, also for spin-off, spin-in and co-development, targeting global challenges like energy or health, maximising innovative capability by pooling resources and expertise on projects with common goals.
Space 4.0 means being ready for new, sometimes disruptive, ideas and overcoming the “not invented here” syndrome. This sounds simple and everyone is ready to accept it as long while it remains just a generic term. But it is clear to me that this wind of change is not only affecting the institutions and their roles; it is also about changing the way in which individuals work, their responsibilities and accountability.
Furthermore, this change must address not only the relation between public institutions and the private sector but also interaction within the public sector: the European Commission, ESA, EUMETSAT, the European Defence Agency and others have to learn from the current political situation to move forward to a cooperation scheme which can best be described as a “United Space in Europe”.
Instead of placing our focus on defining stiff strategies, tactics and detailed work plans, we need to proactively support disruptive ideas and also sustain aspects beyond traditional paths. To do so, it is helpful to define common goals and objectives.
For we Europeans, European identity, spirit and cohesion are the overarching goals; these goals, in the space world, become concrete when we fully integrate space into the European economy and society by achieving European “freedom of action in space” and by establishing a globally competitive European space sector. These objectives, however, must be underpinned by excellence in space science and technology.
Space activities such as Earth observation, navigation, telecommunication, transportation, space science and exploration fulfil these general objectives. Space science and exploration, however, need special consideration since they were always at the heart of Europe. Space science and exploration can stimulate society because they inspire and fascinate, and inspiration and fascination are the backbone of motivation: the robotic mission Rosetta and astronauts are two convincing examples that support this statement.
However, the current structure of financing and ruling space activities within ESA is not the best foundation to support their implementation: delegates from the member states bring forward the positions of the national governments which are looking especially to economic growth based on “return on investment”, specific national interests and affordability. While it is clear that the ESA member states, through their delegations, will continue to define the scope of the space activities to be implemented, it is important to begin a process of reflection on how to improve the mechanism to finance and regulate them.
I would like to conclude on a final consideration regarding the roles and interactions of the different institutions, which need to be clarified. This point is very important, in particular when considering ESA and the European Commission.
While the European Commission, with its broad scope covering multiple sectors of Europe’s economy and society, is best placed to introduce space opportunities into these various sectors, ESA – the European Space Agency – is responsible for managing space projects, including system design, technical aspects, procurement and an industrial policy that avoids monopolies, supports SMEs and ensures a diverse industrial landscape in Europe which is competitive on the world market; with its history of more than 50 years in space, ESA has the competence and ability to maintain itself as The European Space Agency.
Europe and the European spirit deserve the close cooperation and coherent work of the different actors already active in the space field, as well as the new «players »: together we can realize "United Space in Europe"!