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Three Questions to Arthur Sauzay

INTERVIEW - 22 July 2020

On May 30, two American astronauts joined the International Space Station aboard Elon Musk's SpaceX rocket, confirming the central role of the United States in the conquest of space. Whether it was a major turning point or a communications exercise, this launch at least brought space issues back into the public debate. Three questions to Arthur Sauzay, consultant on space issues at Institut Montaigne.

On May 30, two American astronauts took off aboard a rocket from SpaceX, Elon Musk's company, and the first private company to be entrusted by NASA with the responsibility of transporting people into space. How does this event launch a new era in space policy?

This marks the return of the United States to crewed flight autonomy after nearly a decade without. The scope of this launch, however, should not be overestimated. It is now part of the history of NASA, which has always used private companies to build and to launch its rockets. But what is new about this event is the leeway SpaceX has been given to design the launch. With this launch, NASA is also returning to the International Space Station, after having long left the Russians and their Soyuz shuttles, the only available vessels able to reach the station, behind for quite a while. 

Above all, this event means the revival of crewed flights. Boeing is soon expected to take part in this breakthrough, despite technical difficulties that saw it fall behind SpaceX.

The launch on May 30 marks the arrival of new players in the deployment of crewed flights. Elon Musk, not originally from the traditional space industry, approached space activity with a fresh perspective. With SpaceX, he has successfully developed a new, reliable, and low-cost launch vehicle - establishing the Falcon 9 as one of the best launch vehicles in the world. In addition, SpaceX is beginning the development of a new launch vehicle that - if successful, which is not a given - will probably be a generation ahead of all other existing ones.

What is new about this event is the leeway SpaceX has been given to design the launch. 

This launch vehicle, called the Starship, would have a much greater capacity than the largest one currently available: it would be totally reusable and would allow for transport to the Moon and Mars. This is a change in scope, not just in scale. But the challenges (technological, industrial, political) to overcome are daunting.
 

A new series on Netflix called Space Force has imagined a U.S. military operation to conquer the moon as a way to establish U.S. supremacy in space. How do you analyze the new balance of power between the geopolitical superpowers and the role of the Moon in this race?

Between fiction and reality, there is not much difference... For the moment, the existence of a new balance of power in space is undeniable, but it should be noted that this has not been fundamentally changed by the crewed flight of SpaceX. The Russians have been making these types of flights nonstop since 1961. Similarly, the Chinese have autonomously been testing a new space capsule that could have greater capabilities than SpaceX which would let them go further and longer. By remaining relatively discreet about its ambitions, however, China is gradually catching up with the Americans and is pursuing an all-out strategy, which the Moon is clearly a part of.

Whereas ten years ago the goal of going to the Moon might have seemed outdated, it is now central. For China, this symbolic objective is based on the idea expressed by the head of the Chinese lunar exploration program: "If we don't go now, when we are capable of doing so, our descendants will blame us. If those other than us go, they will take it over and you won't be able to go, even if you want to. That's reason enough." This vision echoes what's at stake in Antarctica. Both are symbolic short-term goals, but important ones.

There is also scientific potential for the conquest of the Moon, whether it be about the composition of the soil or about the presence of water, for example. But in reality, the Moon mainly represents a political interest. For the time being, NASA's Orion capsule remains the centerpiece and Europe, by contributing to its costs, has a connection to the project with the hope of one day being able to send someone to the Moon. But there are as of yet no crewed European flight projects on the horizon. In comparison, India has decided to take this step.

From the transport sector to the telecommunications sector, industries appear to be increasingly dependent on space technologies. How can EU space policy contribute to strengthening European strategic autonomy?

There is scientific potential for the conquest of the Moon. But in reality, the Moon primarily represents a political interest.

It is not just industry - it is Europe's sovereignty, particularly its digital sovereignty, that is at stake. Europe's ambitions first of all, of course, bring up the question of budget. The European Space Agency (ESA) announced an increased budget, but the latest draft of the Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF) presented by the Commission on May 27, mentions an EU space budget of 15 billion, a decrease of 1 billion compared to the Commission's previous budget. The European leap into space may not seem self-evident, even if the latest statements by the European Commissioner for Space (among others!), Thierry Breton, demonstrate great ambition. But for the moment, since the February 2020 Institut Montaigne policy paper, it cannot be said that the "European leap" has actually happened. The first elements of a response were announced in July, with, it is hoped, a sharp increase in the EU's space budget to finance new projects.

The Oneweb case (an Internet constellation undergoing recovery and bought by a consortium involving the UK government and an Indian telecommunications operator) is emblematic. Europe had its turn with it and is announcing a possible project based on more advanced technologies (notably quantum). In the meantime, space is going to be profoundly shaped by the forthcoming entry into service of the first broadband constellations. Europe cannot just be on the sidelines with these developments.

Finally, on the one hand it is clear that in this ever-shifting landscape, the United States is quickly moving the goalposts with proposed new rules of the road in orbit, and even the beginning of a new international framework for presence on the Moon, with the Artemis Agreements. On the other hand, there is no clear vision for Europe regarding its presence in space, even though they are essentially a regulatory power. But in order to have an influence on the rules, Europe must impose itself in the proceedings. 

 

Copyright : JOE RAEDLE / GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA / Getty Images via AFP

 

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