The value of space policy in austerity Europe
by Daniel Mason
The European Commission's industry and entrepreneurship website displays a clock counting down the days, hours, minutes and seconds until two satellites lift-off from a spaceport 7,500km from Brussels. At the time of writing there is just more than one month to go.
A week ago on 7 September the first of the duo of spacecraft arrived in French Guiana on the north-eastern edge of South America, home to the European Space Agency's launch site. There, preparations for the much-delayed event are well underway.
The pair of satellites, to be launched into space on a shared Russian Soyuz rocket on 20 October, are the first of a planned 30 that – along with a series of ground control centres and sensor station – will make up the European Union's Galileo satellite navigation system. It is the EU's most ambitious space project yet.
Galileo has been in development for eight years. The cost of building the infrastructure has spiralled to €5.4bn, with EU member states bearing the full brunt after a public-private partnership set up to provide funding collapsed in 2007. The European Commission's proposed budget for 2014 to 2020 allocates €7bn to Galileo. Yet, despite all of the delays and the controversy, and assuming the launch next month passes without a hitch, Europe's own satellite navigation system should be operational by 2014.
That Galileo will, before long, finally get off the ground is no doubt a relief for both the EU and the ESA. Nevertheless, the timing of the satellites' launch raises questions about the value of spending billions on space research, technology and exploration at a time of financial crisis, as governments are forced to slash spending amid speculation about the very future of the single currency.
In the case of Galileo, the justification has always been the long-term reward. According to the commission, the market for global satellite navigation applications will reach €240bn by the end of the decade, with about 7 per cent of gross domestic product – equal to €800m in Europe – reliant on sat nav services. Independent studies have shown that the system could contribute up to €90bn to the European economy in its first 20 years. That Russia and China are also developing rivals to the United States' Global Positioning System only spurs the Europeans on. And, of course, Galileo is only the flagship project of a much wider European space policy.
The Paris-headquartered ESA was created in 1975 from a merger of two older organisations. It is separate to the EU but the two are closely linked. The ESA receives 20 per cent of its funding from the bloc; the rest is provided by its 18 member states, which except for Norway and Switzerland are also EU nations. Romania is set to join this year, while other countries both in and outside Europe, including Canada, have cooperation agreements. With a budget in 2011 of close to €4bn, its stated mission is to shape Europe's space capability and ensure that investment delivers benefits directly to citizens.
Its activities are wide-ranging, and include participating in International Space Station missions. In December ESA astronaut André Kuipers will lead a six-month mission to the ISS, his second trip there. The ESA and its 2,200 staff, under Director-General Jean-Jacques Dordain, also develop satellite technologies and promote the European space industry as well as coordinating the agency's work with other world space organisations.
Meanwhile the Lisbon Treaty gave the EU the legal basis to develop a coherent space policy – as well as mandating it to still more closely with the ESA. The commission's reasoning for prioritising space policy mirrors that for the Galileo project – the provision of services crucial to modern life, economic benefits, and European independence.
Alongside Galileo a second large-scale project is underway, called Global Monitoring for Environment and Security. Using data collected by satellites, as well as earth-based measuring tools, GMES is intended to help develop understanding of climate change through the accurate observation of, for instance, the state of oceans or the chemical composition of the atmosphere. It will also have security applications, such as in border surveillance. According to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, the global market for commercial Earth observation data could rise to $3bn by 2017. Like Galileo, GMES is expected to be operational from 2014.
Earlier this year, the commission published a communication outlining its plans to take advantage of the EU's new mandate to develop a space policy. As well as carrying through the Galileo and GMEs projects, they include protecting space infrastructures against space debris, solar radiation and asteroids by setting-up a European Space Situation Awareness system which could save €332bn in costs from collisions. It wants to look at identifying opportunities for space exploration, partly through greater participation of member states in the International Space Station work. The plans outline an ambition to work still more closely with the ESA to develop industrial space policy and to support research and development which will boost Europe's independence in the sector. And it is also looking at how space technology can be best exploited for defence capabilities.
Antonio Tajani, the European commissioner responsible for space policy, said in a statement: "Space is strategic for Europe's independence, job creation and competitiveness. Space activities create high-skilled jobs, innovation, new commercial opportunities, and improve citizens' well-being and security. This is why we need to reinforce European space policy to best exploit its social and economic opportunities for industry and SMEs. In order to achieve our goals, Europe needs to keep an independent access to space." The European Parliament is currently working on its response, which will be voted on in December.
The European space manufacturing industry is worth €5.4bn per year and employs a highly qualified workforce on more than 31,000. The 11 major satellite operators in Europe run 153 communication satellites, represent 6,000 employees and have a €6bn euro per year turnover, with a downstream effect on 30,000 employees.
There is no doubt then, that although spending on space research and technologies can sometimes seem like a frivolous luxury, the benefits are significant. So while there might only be 36 days, 20 hours, 46 minutes and five seconds until the launch of the first Galileo satellites, it seems certain that European policy-makers will be spending on space well beyond that.
A most fascinating read on what is a very interesting policy area, indeed.
Christopher Olenski - Stoke-on-Trent, UK