Europe stands – once again – at a crossroad. The Russian-Ukrainian crisis painfully demonstrated how quickly access to orbit can be lost. Now, only two options remain: either Europe renews its dependencies on the US and other foreign launchers, or finally decides to compete on its own, building up European capabilities that can compete in the international market. Let’s do the latter!
The time to talk about the issue has never been better: most European space-eyeballs are directed toward the European Space Agency´s (ESA) Ministerial Council Meeting this week, which is expected to reveal how dedicated European space efforts truly are. Europe decides not only on its autonomy by allocating budgets to specific programs like IRIS², but more importantly, on the efficient use of funds. Europe needs competition in the market for space transportation services to reduce launch costs and thus gain the ability to be competitive in the global market. At present, we are not.
Nevertheless, ESA has taken an important step in the last two years with its newly established ESA Directorate for Commercialization. This is a decisive step towards the potential of commercializing not only space transportation, but also other directorates like earth observation or telecommunications in the immediate future. We firmly believe that this is the right way forward!
Global market analysis estimate that the space industry will grow by over 1 trillion US-dollars by 2040 .
With this, ESA aims to co-fund commercially viable business models in the area of space transportation. Multiple European launch service providers have been supported to proceed through their development programs. At the same time, the launch of Boost! three years ago has led to national investments in the space industry in Italy, France and the United Kingdom in the hundreds of millions. This is the best example of how commercialization could intervene to take government interests out of the equation: Stopp institutional launch vehicle development and instead release institutional satellites for commercial space transportation programs and define satellite launch demand. This would work similarly to the Space Act agreement active in the United States, which ensures commercial cargo deliveries to the ISS, for example. Similarly, ESA should be willing to buy the services and help companies develop them based on predefined success criteria. We need accelerated and streamlined commercialization efforts to keep up with the speed at which international competitors are developing services. And most importantly, we need the readiness from ESA to support this approach.
INFOBOX: The commercial space market in the U.S. began in much the same way. In 2006, when it became clear that the Space Shuttle would retire in a few years, NASA and the U.S. government launched the Commercial Orbital Transportations Service (COTS) program to ensure availability of commercial, U.S.-based transportation options after Shuttle retirement in 2013. A clear step away from institutionally developed launch systems by NASA, towards the procurement of commercial transportation services. Over the next several years, the program itself evolved into a competition of sorts. In several steps and milestones, different companies received funding (which increased with each step), and the program was divided into several subprograms, such as for ISS resupply, crew transportation, and even lunar missions. The programs have also been extended several times.
RFA is not the only launch service provider in Europe (luckily). Many privately funded companies have emerged in recent years in the United Kingdom, Spain, France and, of course, Germany. Launches of privately developed launch vehicles are coming up in 2023. The timing is very favorable for these launches, as they could fill the gap left the unavailability of Soyuz launches. Additionally, these small launchers could massively contribute to a tailored secure connectivity constellation, where they could be part of the deployment and maintenance of the constellation. With future growth potential of the launch systems and their subsequent evolutions, European Commission programs, such as Copernicus and Galileo, could be served as well.
Are current commercialization efforts in this regard already sufficient? We believe (not surprisingly) that more could be done. Here is what we have in mind.
First, current commercialization efforts should be significantly strengthened. Instead of fully funded institutional developments, ESA should encourage commercial development by booking and buying launch opportunities, and co-funding the development. This could pave the way for ESA to focus on exploration, science and technology – without completely excluding launch development – and instead rely on commercially available launch capabilities for institutional payloads. We have seen in the U.S. and other countries that this approach has worked very well and benefited national and international commercial competition.
We would advise to target efforts on the procurement of launch services in a test flight program. This can be achieved by firstly selecting multiple small launch companies. The German microlauncher competition and subsequent announcement of flight opportunities has demonstrated that satellite manufacturers and space data providers benefit from this. On the one hand, scientific payloads for DLR or universities will be delivered precisely and flexibly with flight opportunities. On the other hand, commercial satellite operators are provided with options for heritage flights and demonstration missions. However, to achieve this, funds comparable to those in Italy (€300 million) or even France with its €1.5 billion space industry fund are needed on a European level to support the New Space industry.
The second aspect is a national challenge for Germany. In July 2022, the Federation of German Industries presented ten proposals for an ambitious New Space Agenda in Germany . One of the proposals, which we strongly support, is the establishment of a Space Task Force in the Chancellor’s Office to strategically steer space activities in Germany. Its scope would cover the national space strategy, space policy, national space law, and more focused space industry politics. This is needed in order to strengthen our national space industry and keep up with the international space competition.
Our third and final wish is that this week, during the Ministerial Council Meeting, a strong signal of political and institutional willingness is given to strengthen European space efforts. Especially in commercialization. However, this “strong signal” would also have to be followed by action. It should manifest itself, for example, in procurement of commercial launch services, removal of the outdated payload allocation policy and a fair support with funds for the already existing New Space industry. We believe that Europe must move away from purely institutional launch vehicle development if we are to remain competitive. This would boost the commercial market of launch service providers, satellite manufacturers and related industries.
The road to sustainable commercialization is bumpy, but the goal is clear. The ESA Ministerial Council Meeting this week could be a turning point for European spaceflight and its understanding. With current efforts, a good start has been made, but Europe needs to step up its space game. Commercialization and purchasing of private launch services brings competition, price reduction, innovation and eventually global competitiveness. Commercial spaceflight is the future, and, together with the rest of Europe, RFA is eager to shape it.
Rocket Factory Augsburg was founded in 2018 with the vision to enable data generating business models in space to better monitor, protect and connect our planet Earth. Against this background, the company’s goal is to offer launch services of up to 1.300kg into low Earth orbits and beyond on a weekly basis at unmatched prices. With this, RFA wants to democratize access to space and reduce the launch costs in the space industry. The RFA ONE launch service combines three key competitive advantages: A customer focused service with precise in-orbit delivery and a high degree of mission flexibility through its orbital stage; at a highly competitive price; made possible by superior staged combustion technology, low-cost structures and usage of industrial components.
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