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Comment: Europe’s false starts in space travel

So now it’s summer 2022. At the earliest. The Ariane 6, Europe’s new flagship package, should actually have taken off on July 16, 2020. But there were always new problems and delays.

Corona is only to blame for a small part. Europe’s research policy has a different problem: it is primarily about jobs, industrial funding and national egoisms. Without competition and privatization, Europe will lose touch.

The dilemma of Ariane 6 can be determined by two figures: More than 600 companies from 13 countries have to be coordinated for them. Worse still, the choice is dictated by politics. For example, the prerequisite for German approval for Ariane 6 was that its solids boosters were not only manufactured in Italy but also in Germany. But the Germans couldn’t get a grip on the ingenious and allegedly cheaper carbon fiber process. The project was immediately reversed – not without giving Germany other contracts.

In NASA projects such as the Space Launch System, where geographical proportional representation also prevails, there are also immense delays and price increases. The private company SpaceX, on the other hand, deliberately manufactures as much as possible itself in order to be less dependent on suppliers.


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The role model in Europe is Airbus. In the aircraft division, the division of labor is now also working – after enormous initial difficulties. But things are different in the arms sector, where every EU country has very national ideas. With the Airbus A400M military transporter, additional costs, delays and deficiencies were the order of the day (see TR 9/2009, p. 52). The rocket market also functions in a very special way: on the one hand, state actors still dominate who subsidize launches and new developments in order to secure sovereign access to space. On the other hand, private companies are increasingly entering the market, often with smaller missiles.

Ariane 6 is caught between these two worlds: political independence and commercial success. But both are not possible with these political guidelines. Europe has two options: it could finally admit that it needs Ariane 6 for its sovereignty, but that it has no chance on the world market. Expensive developments such as reusability, as planned for industrial promotion, are then forbidden. The money would be better invested in forward-looking projects in which Europe is currently taking the lead, such as the removal of space debris.

Or there is more competition. Johann-Dietrich Wörner, who resigned as head of the European Space Agency in February, has outlined a solution: Europe’s politics should only specify the necessary requirements for a rocket and the number of launches required. The rest of the industry can work out the rest – with innovative concepts and tough calculations.

The reactions to the proposal? No. Such an approach would do Europe’s space industry – and politicians who only think of their own country – with the honor. The industry likes to complain, but it has settled down well with the status quo. Somehow the money always flowed.


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