Europe lags behind in the space sector, an area that has invaluable implications for the economy and security. The Starship accident opens a narrow window of opportunity for Brussels to seek its strategic autonomy, innovation and efficiency in space affairs.
On April 20, Starship, a prototype orbital rocket built and operated by Elon Musk’s SpaceX, reached an altitude of 39 kilometers before exploding. While some in Brussels, Paris or Beijing may have taken some satisfaction from the aborted test launch and the delays it has caused, the setback has given competitors only limited time to catch up. SpaceX’s next two test vehicles are ready, and modifications to the company’s infrastructure are underway. Europe cannot afford to sit idly by until SpaceX continues to innovate and improve.
If Starship becomes operational, it will be one of the largest orbital rockets ever built, capable of launching its payloads into orbit for a fraction of current costs. It is designed to be fully reusable, a feat that far outstripped every other rocket design, including the now-retired Space Shuttle. The project is the subject of divisiveness, with its design, economic feasibility and environmental impact criticized by some observers. The US Federal Aviation Administration suspended Starship’s launch license after the April 20 explosion, pending a review of safety and environmental controls that could last for months.
However, European industry and policy makers should start planning for a new era in space. The main limitation is cost. As of early 2010, the cost of placing a one-kilogram spacecraft in low-Earth orbit in its final years is $18,000, the European Ariane 5 to $9,000, and the Russian Proton $5,000 (which is already not available to European operators). is) till because of the war in Ukraine).
SpaceX, with its strong long-term contracts, especially with NASA, has already cut costs significantly. Their Falcon 9 allows access to at least $2,700/kg, while the Falcon Heavy brings it down even further to $1,400/kg.
Starship, with a payload of up to 150 tons, could reduce these numbers significantly. If SpaceX remains a major player, it will have a free hand to set prices and maximize profits.
The launch market is increasingly competitive, but most new entrants are not European. Blue Origin, a private company owned by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, is developing a rocket called New Glenn that it claims will be one of the most affordable launch vehicles available. China’s space program aims to compete on cost efficiencies and to increase the frequency of launches from mobile and maritime platforms.
So despite the near-term setbacks from SpaceX, the EU must act now or assume it will be left behind. Brussels has a number of space projects and initiatives, such as the Galileo satellite navigation system and the Copernicus Earth observation programme. The Ariane 6 launcher is under development, offering an estimated cost of $7,200/kg to reach low-Earth orbit, comparable to existing SpaceX options. While European commercial cargo operators could benefit from access to a cheaper US space transport market, over-reliance on the US leaves the Union in a vulnerable position.
The implications go far beyond the commercial realm. Starship could potentially give the US military exclusive access to space for a fraction of today’s cost, revolutionizing the role it plays in defense. The new economics of the space industry means that, even for military power, the problem is not simply the ability to put a satellite into orbit or shoot down a hostile satellite. When launching a new satellite costs several times less than the anti-satellite missile that ultimately shoots it down, those with the cheapest and most reliable launch capabilities will have a huge strategic advantage.
There is no hope for Europe to match that performance right now, and there is no quick fix. First, in terms of research and development, Europe should prioritize investment in re-use and cost-competitive access to space. Second, the EU must be willing to take more risks and increase overall funding from the public and private sectors for space travel. Third, long-term contracts from the EU and public space agencies should be extended, with separate clauses for new and established players. Finally, Europe must continue to build on its strengths, including in space components, equipment and satellite manufacturing.
The Starship crash opens a narrow window of opportunity for Europe to step up the pace of the competition. Given the focus on strategic autonomy and economic security, the time has come for the EU to re-evaluate its objectives and approaches in space as well.
This entry was originally published in English at Bruegel’s website.