In the past year, the European Union drafted its first space policy and even cemented space as an EU competency in the draft constitution. Its new partnership with ESA could give new momentum to European space dreams.
Part two of a three-part special report.
Europe has long had its eyes on the sky. It shaped Airbus into the world's leading airplane manufacturer, and most commercial satellites that are launched into space hitch rides on Europe's Ariane rockets. Now, the European Union wants to take the gains of its member states to an even higher level, setting only its budget as the limit. Indeed, Europe's (draft) constitution calls for a European space policy to promote scientific and technical progress as well as industrial competitiveness.
For three years the European Community has been working with officials at the European Space Agency to define a general space policy for all of Europe, one that meets the EU's strategic, security and scientific demands. A series of high-profile reports culminated in November 2003 with the establishment of a cooperative agreement between the EC and ESA. The pact entered into force in May and the two bodies created a high-level panel of experts on space and security in June.
Satellites like Envisat-1 are helping the European Union to better monitor changes on Earth.
Though ESA will not become an official EU agency, the two bodies will be working closer together than ever before -- with Brussels defining the main lines of policy for many pan-European projects like Galileo or the Global Monitoring for Environment and Security (GMES) initiative and Paris-headquartered ESA managing their implementation.
'An indispensable tool for Europe'
"The European Union is taking a strong interest in space because we realize more and more that space is an indispensable tool in realizing our objectives," Kurt Vandenberghe, a senior aide to the European commissioner for research, told professionals at a conference in Leuven, Belgium, earlier this year. "Sustainable development, scientific and industrial competitiveness and security are important areas that involve space science." Vandenberghe noted that the EU already relies on satellites to monitor its agricultural, environmental and civil protection policies.
"Our intention is to make space a part of the EU political project by building further on what already exists today," he said.
A string of recent natural and man-made disasters have demonstrated that a unified European space program could not only save money, but lives as well.
Record summer flooding in eastern Germany in 2002 caused an estimated €15 billion in damage. Systems and data to help authorities forecast the event existed at the time, but individual EU countries had different tools, and none of it was centralized. "If we were able to build a cross-border system that allows public authorities to anticipate such events, we would be able to substantially lower the damages. That's what GMES is about," Vandenberghe said. The same holds true for the catastrophic 2002 Prestige oil spill off the coasts of Spain and France. "If data had been available in real time," he said, "a lot of this pollution could have been prevented."
Boosting the economy
Officials in Brussels have also identified space as a sector that could help fuel economic growth. "We believe we have convinced the heads of government that space can help relaunch the economy," Luc Tytgat, head of the European Space Policy unit at the European Commission said.
Europe-wide civilian and security projects could give a needed boost to European space contractors like EADS, Alcatel or Alenia Spazio, giving them a more reliable economic base than the highly fluctuating commercial satellite launching business.
But the new EU-ESA ties could also give a boost to scientific projects. David Southwood, director of science at ESA, said he hopes the alignment with Brussels will help jumpstart space projects that are currently languishing due to limited funding, like the Aurora vision for manned space flight to Mars.
"I hope we will get Europe firmly using space in every possible way it can be used," he told DW-WORLD, "and the alignment with the European Union is a very important part of that. The EU is the best way to organize the very useful aspects of space, like navigation systems and environmental monitoring."
But visions like Aurora, he says, have even greater potential to foster European unity. "We're all still Italians, Germans or Dutch underneath and European second," Southwood says. "To get a grand program like this going you have to be European first. But that's also why taking on grand projects together and succeeding in them is part of Europe's realizing that together it can achieve more than it can as a bunch of isolated individual states."
With a single vision for Europe in Space, Brussels hopes, it will be possible to bring all 25 member states under a single, ambitious tent.
"We have an important and difficult job to do," ESA Director General Jean-Jacques Dordain recently said in Brussels. "We have the new issue of border control in an enlarged Europe. We have the fight against terrorism. We have crisis management and humanitarian aid. Balancing these priorities will be difficult, but that’s what makes this exercise so important. ... This is an important subject for all of us, for every European citizen. Space must be part of the answer to our security challenges."