It wasn’t a long time ago, nor was it in a galaxy far, far away, when Jose Manuel Barroso said he wanted the European Union to play a role in space exploration, which may include human spaceflight as well as robotic missions.
“The Commission … will argue that space exploration is important to the EU”, the Portuguese predecessor of Jean-Claude Juncker, the current European Commission chief, said in a speech in 2009, weeks before the Lisbon Treaty came into force, giving the EU the legal basis to be involved in space exploration for the first time.
His speech was preceded and followed by several papers arguing the EU “can not be absent or play a minor role, as space exploration is the most emblematic domain of space activities and by proxy of technological capabilities”.
A 2007 text by Barroso’s Commission said the “international exploration endeavour has a significant political appeal in a vision of European identity”.
However, the current director of the Commission’s space activities has told EUobserver the role of the EU in space exploration in the next two to three decades is likely to be very small.
“Space exploration is not [an area] where you have a big leverage effect”, said Philippe Brunet, director of Aerospace, Maritime, Security and Defence Industries at the Commission’s the Commission’s Internal Market and Industry department.
Instead of focusing on space exploration, which has scientific value and may capture citizens’ imagination, but doesn’t give an economic return, the Commission’s space policy focuses on stimulating technological innovation and using space technologies for other policies, such as monitoring the environment.
“I’m not saying it’s not important. ESA [the European Space Agency] – which is not the EU – has a huge programme towards space exploration. If ESA is doing that for Europe, we are not going to do that [too]”
Although ESA and the EU share many member states, the space agency is not an EU body. ESA is an intergovernmental instead of a supranational organisation, and ESA’s 22 members include non-EU members Switzerland and Norway.
The European Space Agency is the organisation which led the Rosetta mission, which successfully landed a spacecraft on a comet last November after a 10-year journey.
ESA astronaut Andreas Mogensen, from Denmark, is due to leave the International Space Station (ISS) on Friday evening (11 September) and return to Earth after a 10-day mission.
But the ISS is not going to be there forever and new ESA director Johann-Dietrich Woerner has devised an exciting alternative: a “Moon village” – a permanent base on the far side of the Moon.
Tellingly, perhaps, of the Commission’s focus away from space exploration, was Brunet’s response when asked about his opinion on the idea for a Moon village.
“I’m not aware of it”, he said. “I did not know that he had proposed to build something on the dark side of the moon.”
So, what is his opinion about the proposal?
“As a citizen: Why not? But … let’s distribute the challenges. We have a lot of other challenges.”
Spokesperson Lucia Caudet later told this website in an e-mail that the Commission has no official comment on the Moon village idea, but noted that space exploration “is not the Commission’s role”.
“Our focus is on fostering an innovative internal market for space-based applications, and supporting the development of a robust European industry that can compete on the global stage and achieve great things”, she wrote.
“Historically, and because of budgetary reasons, we are going towards a kind of apportionment of tasks in terms of complimentarity, between what member states are doing on [an] individual basis … and what we are doing at the EU [Commission]”, said Brunet.
“We want to invest in space in order to build [a] robust industry”, he added.
“Because at the end of the day, that will be the prerequisite to put this base on the moon.”
Among those great things are the two “flagship programmes” of the commission, the Galileo and Copernicus satellite programmes.
“When Galileo and Copernicus are operational, we will produce nearly more data in Europe than anybody else. Just the three first satellites of Copernicus will produce in 2017 one petabyte of data every seven months. … And that will be purely European data.”
A petabyte is 1,000,000,000,000,000 bytes, or roughly two millennia worth of music in MP3 format.
In 2007, the then industry commissioner, Guenter Verheugen, warned there was a danger that Europe would become irrelevant in space, in the face of competition from China and India.
Eight years later, Brunet says Europe is “far from being irrelevant, that’s for sure. Very far.”
“Maybe the gap since Verheugen’s speech has been modified, but I have no evidence to say that, for instance, Europe Airbus and Thales have been [overtaken] by Chinese or Indian companies. I think that’s not true”, he noted.
Coming back to the difference between ESA, European national governments and the European Commission, Brunet said he expects an upcoming review of European space policy to include a clear division of tasks.
“We need to know, to clarify, who is doing what.”
The head of ESA is expected to publish this review before the end of 2015.