As the rest of the international community stumbles over itself to dominate the stars, Europe has noticeably been cautious, preferring practical implications for these new technologies. This isn’t a new phenomenon, but rather, a predictable continuation of policies they have employed since the 1950s. As Russia launched Sputnik and John F. Kennedy vowed to his countrymen that they would reach the moon by the end of the decade, Europe hurriedly built up its national infrastructure and laid the groundwork for the European Union. They created the modern welfare state and fostered a community of peace and friendship. As a region, as a people, they’ve never seen space the way the rest of the world has.
“Europe has never been part of any kind of space race or international competition,” Jean-Jacques Tortora, director of the European Space Policy Institute, told Politico in January of 2020. Like most European policymakers, he emphasized instead Brussel’s focus on developing “useful” space applications.
It’s been over 50 years since man first landed on the moon, heralding our emancipation from this little blue planet we call home. The news crackled into TVs and radio sets around the world as Neil Armstrong remarked, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” and just like that, everything changed. It was a bold statement, only equaled in its importance by the occasion which it marked.
But that was 1969; the year of Woodstock, the Mansion murders and a tragedy at Stonewall Inn, New York. Unfortunately, it seems like our progress toward continuing in Neil Armstrong’s fateful footsteps peaked as soon as he took them. In May of 2018, the White House cut NASA’s yearly budget by over 500 million dollars and canceled 5 top projects, including the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM). The budget cuts also targeted the education office of the agency and the Radiation Budget Instrument (RBI), which would have flown on a future weather satellite to measure the Earth’s reflected sunlight.
But while the romanticized relationship the American public has with space continues into the next millennia, despite a clear lack of monetary support to back it up, the rest of the world is vying to catch up. The Chinese National Space Agency (CNSA) has been developing at a breakneck pace since Mao Zedong created the organization in the 1950s to counter-balance American threats to use nuclear weapons in a potential ground war. Known only to top government officials as Project 581, Beijing launched its first rocket by 1960. The CNSA today is the third-largest space endeavor only behind Washington and Moscow, but even that hasn’t stopped them from making history. In 2019, Chang’e 4 was the first spacecraft to ever make a soft-landing on the far side of the moon, beating international counterparts like Russia’s Roscosmos for the coveted title.
This new space race, led by the participants of the first, is fueled by the same reason as its predecessor: geopolitical security. As much as we’d like to fool ourselves into thinking differently, it’s just an arms race with positive press. Scientific discovery and human advancement have never been the goals of the men who control the outcome of these scenarios. Currently, there are six major space programs in the world, all of them trying to prove their worth through exploration and expansion. This collective, vain attempt to replicate the same national vigor and pride that the United States experienced in 1969 is almost universal, with Europe remaining the notable exception.
On paper, it quite frankly doesn’t make much sense. Unlike the United States, China and Russia, Europe has never been the key player in any of these international contests and hasn’t fought a major ground war since World War 2. With or without a space surge, Europe enjoys the protection of NATO, the USA, the EU, and countless other alliances. They are in the perfect position to utilize these advantages and become the next space power.
But as it turns out, Europe likes the role it plays. While the rest of the world rushes to weaponize the final frontier, the European Space Agency’s most ambitious goal is establishing a peaceful, internationally friendly “Moon-Village,” which would act as the spiritual successor to the ISS.
Europe’s backing up its peaceful commitment to space with cash; it’s 8-billion-dollar annual budget is tied with that of China, and greater than Russia’s. With this generous financial support, the ESA has been able to corner the market on geolocation services. The industry is set to grow from €150 billion in 2019 to €325 billion in 2029, according to Carlos des Dorides, who runs the Prague-based GSA agency that manages the geo-navigation constellation Galileo. The technology is vital for steering self-driving cars as well as satellite imagery and GPS.
Even in recent months, Germany and France have agreed on a program to begin focusing solely on technological implications from future space exploration missions. Riadh Cammoun, who runs regulatory affairs at French satellite-builder Thales Alenia Space, wants the EU to press ahead with systems to monitor and clear up the ever-growing amount of space junk and to finance Govsatcomm, a secure government communications satellite system.
Still, some clamor for more inside Brussel’s. “I hear some spoke about an orbital society: Why not?” former Commissioner for the Internal Market Elżbieta Bieńkowska told a space industry conference in Brussels last year. “I hear others targeting the moon and the moon village: Why not? I hear also that Europe should have the capacity to have human space flights and not depend on others: Certainly yes!”
This belief that Europe should take a more aggressive role in space has its supporters, including Pedro Duque, a former astronaut and Spain’s Science Minister. “Instead of only using space for services, we should also think if Europe could have a longer-term goal that can make people feel enthusiastic about and inspire the next generations.”
Needless to say, the European approach to space is underwhelming when compared to the pomp and splendor of the American, Russian, and Chinese programs. But as the adage goes: ‘slow and steady wins the race.’
The views expressed in this article belongs to the author alone and does not necessarily reflect those of any institutions with which the author is associated with or Geopoliticalmonitor.com.