ESPI Conference, European Identity through Space - 12 November 2009, Vienna

12 November 2009

Jean-Jacques Dordain's keynote speech transcript.

Thank you for inviting me to this Conference organised by ESPI here in Vienna. ESA and Austria are founding members of ESPI, and I think it was a very good decision to create ESPI, whose importance is growing. The theme of this conference is unusual in space fora, but that also means it is an interesting theme. In fact, the question of identity is a difficult, and even sensitive, subject. In some countries in Europe there is currently a debate on national identity running. As Director General of ESA, you could say that I need to have 18 nationalities – and the number is growing … I’m not an expert on the subject of identity, so I won’t try to give you an answer, but I’ll tell you about how I think space can bring something to our identity.

First of all, I would like to underline two important events in space, which dramatically changed the world and people’s perceptions of identities. The first one took place in 1957. The launch of the first satellite, Sputnik, opened the door to the Space Age. As can still be seen in newspapers from that time, Sputnik was perceived as a demonstration of superiority of Eastern technology. In fact, many countries identified themselves with the Sputnik achievement: the USSR, but also countries of Eastern Europe, creating a common identity among them. Today, 50 years later, that type of identity is out of date.

Another important event took place in 1957: the signing of the Treaty of Rome. This was the basis for the development of what was to become the European Union. In fact, “space” and “Europe” share a lot of common aspects. To start, both are difficult subjects. It is difficult to go to space, and it is difficult to build up Europe. And for both, we have no alternatives. Both are also children of the Second World War. Both have the common objective of peace. The Outer Space Treaty requires that space activities are for peaceful purposes. And the best thing the EU has done is to bring peace to Europe. The last common aspect is that both “space” and “Europe” are invisible. You can’t touch space, and you can’t see Europe, since they are both rather abstract fields for the public, and so it is difficult to make citizens realise their importance and to build up an identity on these two values.

However, both these historical events stimulated an identity: an Eastern identity and a European. It was in the wake of these two events that ESA was created – in fact, ESRO was created in 1964. So ESA is at the crossroads of space and of Europe. It has the difficulties of space and the difficulties of Europe, so it is twice as difficult! But it is also twice as successful.

Before speaking about achievements of ESA and of Europe in space, I would like to come back to the second historic space event. In July 1969, the first landing of man on the Moon took place. The image given was that of superiority of Western technology. But I am not so sure it has created a Western identity. Because, in fact, it was the start of the end of competition in human space flight. Nothing was the same after that achievement. Thirty years later, nobody really cares anymore that it was the US flag that was placed on the Moon. But the Moon landing meant two real breakthroughs, which were not perceived as such at the time, hidden by the event itself.

Firstly, it was the start of international cooperation in space. There was one flag on the Moon in 1969. In 1975, two flags were represented when Apollo and Soyuz docked for the first time. This was a premonition of the fall of the Wall between East and West. Then, we had four flags in the space station Freedom project. In 1993, these became five with the International Space Station. And I am sure more flags will join, I hope it will be already on the ISS. Indeed I am the one who has been repeating that we should invite more partners to the ISS project.

The second breakthrough was the concept of Planet Earth. For the first time, man could see the Earth as a small golf ball floating in the Solar System. Bill Anders said that “we came all this way to explore the Moon but the most important thing we have discovered is planet Earth”. And indeed, our future can only be global. Earth is like a small spacecraft, a finite place, with finite resources. All this shows that what comes out of an event at the time of the event can be totally different from what is seen to have come out of it thirty years later. The notion of identity is not permanent, it is evolving.

I am convinced that space contributes to the development of the European identity. Still, we have a lot to do, and we also have to go further and develop a “Planet Earth” identity or a global identity. This is our future, and it is certainly global. Antoine de Saint Exupery wrote that your task is not to predict the future, but to enable it. We have to work to make our future possible on Planet Earth.

There is a space identity, and I want this to help develop the European identity, but I also would like to see that our European identity helps develop a “Planet Earth” identity.

So, what is this space identity? What are its unique features?

First of all, space activities are focussed on projects. And we need common projects and common goals to develop an identity. It is then easy to integrate people of different nationalities. When ESA landed Huygens on Titan, a moon of Saturn, no one in the ESA team thought about which nationality they belonged to, no one in the industrial team thought about which organisation they belonged to. All were working together, as one project. That day you could really see the space identity – men and women crying, because we were the first to discover this world, which is almost an Earth-like system.

I dare say that we have invented an identity in the project teams – and this is not about a French working with a German etc, but really about a new identity. Yes, we speak in English, but it’s a very special English ... We have symbols of this identity: such as Ariane. By the way, Ariane was used as symbol of Europe in a French election campaign for the European Parliament. The European Astronaut Corps means there is a single corps of astronauts in Europe. So there is an identity of the European astronauts. But when our European astronauts work onboard the Space Station they are first and foremost citizens of the world: no one up there really cares about their nationality or who they work for, they work together as one team with common goals.

The second characteristic is a culture of risk. We shall not be Europe without taking risk. The principle of caution can’t apply if you want to make significant progress. In space, you have to take risks. At each launch there are reasons not to launch, but we have to launch. We have failures, but they are part of the progress: we have to manage the risks. Therefore, we use the best talents and expertise to be found: within European industry, within the scientific community – and from 19 different nationalities (including Canada). This is our way of using diversity. I think it is a richness of ours. Space is certainly a very good example of how to manage risks.

The third characteristic is that in space Europe has no alternative but to cooperate. In fact, space activities in Europe are one of the most integrated activities: more than 50% of space activities are on the European level (for research the figure is close to 5%). The new competence on space of the EU under the Lisbon Treaty will certainly increase that level of integration of space activities in Europe. I have heard that Europe does not exist because there is no phone number to call Europe. In the field of space, Europe has its phone numbers. The USA and Russia know which phone number to ring to reach the European partner on ISS (which is to ESTEC by the way). For operations, they call ESOC: the teams there have rescued both a Japanese and an American satellite. If there is a natural disaster: please call ESRIN. This integration is a reality and space is in advance of many activities.

The next characteristic is the well experienced governance in space. Yes, it has evolved and it is still evolving, but it has always led to success. With a much smaller budget in Europe we are in a leading position on a lot of activities in space, meaning our governance cannot be that bad.

The last characteristic is that space inspires the young generations. And we shall make Europe with the young generations. Space and Europe are two concepts that will grow, in particular thanks to the young. So we have to attract the young, and space is doing just that.

This is the way our space identity can build up our European identity.

So, how can the European identity build up a “Planet Earth” identity? Are there any such characteristics of Europe in space?

Firstly, the European space sector has been developed as a civilian sector, which is different from the other space powers: USA, Russia, China. Japan is the only one more like Europe. This means that priority has been given to science and to services to the citizens, which is pretty unique in the world. That’s why, in spite of lower budgets, we are on the leading edge of space science. We have recently launched Herschel and Planck: there is no equivalent in the world. The data now coming from these spacecraft is unique (we still have to wait a little for the data to be turned into science though). Europe is also on the leading edge on Earth Observation activities. We have today 20 Earth Observation satellites in development in ESA. SMOS was launched only last week, to study the water cycle, with unprecedented accuracy. And in the telecom domain, we have the most successful operators in the world. SES global is one example. For launch services, we have Arianespace. Even though we are the smallest space power of the world, we are among the most successful in space.

The second characteristic of Europe is the well experienced complexity. I have said before that it is hopeless to try and make Europe simple. So let’s use the complexity and diversity. But in fact, the organisation of space activities in the US is not so simple either. And to understand how the Chinese space sector is organised would be very interesting … We have in Europe 50 years of experience, with the regions, nations, the intergovernmental and communitarian levels … In the end, it works and this diversity is one of our strengths.

Lastly, Europe has a long history of relationships with all parts of the world, which no one else has. Especially with the parts of the world which are not space powers, but which still need to use space. This is one of the strengths of Europe that we have such relations established with South America, Africa, the Far East etc. We are possibly the only space power cooperating with everyone, including with the non space-faring parts of the world.

So there are unique characteristics in Europe which can open a way for Europe to develop a “Planet Earth” identity. True, there is much more to be done than we have done, so I would like to point out the three most important challenges, in the short, medium and long term:

In the short term, space must contribute to the economy and its recovery. This is a global challenge. It involves both competition and cooperation. Take for example Galileo, I think it should not be seen as a competitor to GPS – rather, the GNSS are global systems to help navigate on Planet Earth. Space and Energy is becoming more and more important. In the short term, the EU is looking to the power grid, and here space can do a lot. We have energy coming from the winds to the North, from the Sun to the South, from the gas and oil to the East … Space can certainly bring a lot of information for regulating this power grid.

In the medium term, we have Climate change. When I say medium term it does not mean that we should not act now – this is a pressing issue. And it’s a global issue. It is even more complex than space, since here we have a whole chain of actions, starting by collecting data, modelling, predicting, acting, monitoring … But what is striking is that space is on both ends of the chain: able both to collect data and to monitor the consequence of the actions. At ESA we have a fantastic programme to collect data: the Earth Explorers: one satellite launched per year. Also our missions out in the Solar system can help: there was a dramatic climate change on Mars, and this can help us understand also Planet Earth. There are also the services, the monitoring part, such as under GMES, where the European Commission is leading with the support of ESA. On these services, Europe is on the leading edge in the world.

Long term, we have Exploration. The recent conference on human space exploration in Prague meant to start the debate. A question asked was: What is exploration? I think a good definition is: extending the knowledge and the actions of humans beyond Planet Earth. The future of the Earth cannot be seen in isolation, it is part of a wider system. In fact, Exploration may be the only global endeavour we could attempt without acting in response to a crisis, such as Climate change. An international Exploration initiative will start with the success of ISS, and we still have to make sure that ISS becomes a success also of utilisation. It would be very difficult to ask Member States to invest in exploration if they saw the ISS investment as useless. Therefore I am glad that the US has taken a decision towards extending exploitation to 2020. And exploration is both robotic and human. In ESA, we put particular effort on the robotic exploration of Mars. Therefore, I am particularly glad that ExoMars is not anymore a one-off mission, but part of a long-term cooperation with NASA.

To end, I must point out that I am an engineer, not a philosopher – and certainly not an artist! – but I have here given you my personal perception of the debate you are organising. I want to thank you for this opportunity. This Conference and these discussions are certainly a way of associating the public to space and Europe, which I am sure is very important for driving the future.

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