In recent years, Europe has enjoyed a string of successes in the space sector: Thomas Pesquet’s mission aboard the International Space Station, the Rosetta/Philae probe’s success, the European GPS service Galileo’s commissioning, satellites launching, and the manufacturing of a new rocket - Ariane 6. Despite relatively low spending compared to other powers, Europe has managed to impose itself as a major player in the space race.
This position is being challenged. The space sector is experiencing major economic, technological and geopolitical evolutions on a global scale. New American private actors such as SpaceX and Blue Origin, but also State actors such as China and India, are emerging and developing new technologies allowing them to compete with the sector’s historical actors. Their ambitions fly high.
The race’s most visible aspect is access to space, with rockets. Betting on an economic and technological disruption, which consists in recovering and reusing key launcher components instead of discarding them after a single use, these new actors present a significant competitive advantage. They can also rely on solid support from their government. For instance, the US government purchases launches from such actors for NASA and army satellites or to provision the Space Station. In this new context, there is significant uncertainty as to whether the future Ariane 6, which is non-reusable, will be competitive enough to maintain the current European leadership throughout the 2020s, especially as its domestic government market is already three times smaller than that of the United States or China.
But the main challenge, regarding new economic activities and defense issues, is less visible. As in the case of the digital economy, in which Europe failed to compete with GAFAs (Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon), “space GAFAs” are likely to emerge in the United States or China. Regarding defense, Europe invested far too little and is not coordinated enough, even though it represents a crucial tool for security, and space infrastructures (GPS, telecommunication) have become vital for European sovereignty.
Unless Europe responds to these challenges quickly, it will not be at the forefront of global space powers in the 21st century. Strategic choices that will be made in upcoming months, at a time when the future of Europe is under discussion, will have a lasting impact, beyond the space sector, on our economy, our sovereignty and in fine our security.
Institut Montaigne calls for a reaction and formulates proposals so that Europe strikes back.