Space conquest: “It’s not just SpaceX and Elon Musk in life!”

Traveling to Toulouse on Wednesday February 16, the Head of State, Emmanuel Macron, declared himself in favor of a sovereign Europe in space, a “common good” which must make “dream” and pushed the leaders of the EU to position itself on manned flights to the Moon and Mars. The industrialists are impatiently awaiting the decisions of the European ministers in charge of the subject, in the autumn, which should in particular set the multiannual budget of the European Space Agency and the framework for the “space” reconquest, in a context where the American, Chinese or even Indian programs are very ambitious. For L’Express, the CEO of Thales Alenia Space, Hervé Derrey, highlights the technological assets of Europe.

How has space once again become a new geopolitical and geostrategic issue?

Herve Derrey The spatial “reconquest” is the illustration that space has once again become, half a century later [après la course à l’espace durant la guerre froide], the stake of a new geopolitical battle. We can see this very well with the United States, which wants to return to the Moon and has big plans for Mars, but also with China. Other nations have similar ambitions. This battle leads to a revival of major programs, a revival of technological developments. As President Macron so aptly said, space is the sovereignty of sovereignties. For several reasons.

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First for strategic and military issues. Space is a new field of struggle and its control has therefore become essential. We are faced with new threats in space and we must therefore acquire our own means to detect and respond to them. This also implies having a doctrine on the subject. Then, for technological issues. These programs have technological developments that go beyond the space domain strictly speaking and that are applicable to other sectors, such as navigation, communication systems… All of this seems completely natural, but if, from day to the next day we no longer had a navigation and geolocation system, the effects on our lives and our economies would be catastrophic. Hence the strategic importance of being technologically and industrially independent in these sectors.

To meet these challenges, the French sector, which represents 48% of European industrial activity, has formed a coalition and made proposals through the SpacEarth Initiative [un programme visant à promouvoir la filière]. United, with a clear strategy and timetable and substantial financial mobilization, we will be up to the challenge.

In the launcher segment, the lead of the American SpaceX seems considerable, has Europe lost this battle?

It’s not just Elon Musk and SpaceX in life! If we are talking about autonomy and sovereignty, it is essential to have autonomous access to space. It is an essential brick. In this respect, the principle of European preference is clear: European institutional programs must use European launchers. This will create business volume and, consequently, will have a positive impact on competitiveness and in particular on the balance of the Ariane 6 economic model.

In addition, Europe is launching into reusable microlaunchers. It’s a battle that we can and must win, as in the field of satellite infrastructure, where the Europeans are very good! Take the example of reconfigurable satellites in space – a bit like reusable launchers. It is a breakthrough innovation which was invented by Europeans, which affects a rapidly growing world market and on which Europeans have 100% market share.

For this type of geostationary satellite, ie almost half of the latter, we Europeans have won all the global calls for tenders this year. In the field of constellations, a hypercompetitive market, our technologies are very well positioned. In short, we have nothing to be ashamed of in the face of American technologies in this sector. This is why when the European Commission, then Emmanuel Macron as President of the Council of the European Union, announces the launch of a European sovereign communication constellation, I am very optimistic: we have mastered the technology and we have the industrial power,

How is the competition with the United States biased today?

We play with the weapons we have. And on this playing field, we are at a disadvantage. When we compare American and European institutional investments in a very factual way, the amounts are around 40 billion [d’euros] per year for the United States and 8 billion for Europe. When we praise the success of SpaceX, we forget that Elon Musk’s group benefits greatly from this public order, whether it comes from NASA or the American Department of Defense. Their business model relies heavily on that. It is also based on a second factor, which is the massive injection of private funding. We do not yet have, in Europe, an ecosystem equivalent in terms of private financing to what exists across the Atlantic…

You say that mastering space is also an issue in the fight against climate change…

It is an absolutely essential building block, if only to measure the extent of climate change, but also to monitor the actual application of public policies. Concretely, it is through space observation that it is possible to check the greenhouse gas emissions of each country. This is a subject on which Europe is very advanced. The Copernicus program allows us to form a digital twin of the Earth and to measure a very large number of climatic and environmental phenomena: the CO2 level on very small surfaces, the melting of the ice, the height of the oceans, the height of rivers , the drying of the land or the level of humidity of the land.

Finally, all these elements allow us to monitor the effectiveness of environmental policies and above all to adjust them. Some 75% of the data processed by the IPCC [NDLR : le Groupe d’experts intergouvernemental sur l’évolution du climat] come from space. Without them, we would therefore be deprived of a thermometer… Here again, Europe’s lead in this area is considerable. For all these reasons, we must invest massively. And, as such, the interministerial meeting at European level which will be held in the autumn and which will decide on the budgets – in particular that of the European Space Agency – for the years to come will be decisive.

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