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Space 4.0 is ESA's bid to catch up with NASA

November 30, 2016

America knows that "government no longer has exclusive access to space." Does Europe? ESA members meeting in Lucerne this week will bank on a future of public-private partnerships in "Space 4.0."

USA SpaceX Dragon V2
Image: SpaceX

There's no doubt these are exciting times to be building new rockets and propulsion systems for space travel - "Unprecedented," says Casey Dreier, director of space policy at the Planetary Society.

But so far most of that excitement has been felt in the US - not in Europe.

There was a brief burst of commercial entrepreneurship in the early 1980s when the shuttle began to fly, Dreier says. Then, after the Challenger disaster, NASA pulled back from investing in commercial projects. Now, those projects are coming back.

"We're in this period of heady excitement, and you get real innovation when people don't know what's impossible yet," says Dreier. "SpaceX and Blue Origin have been pioneering, Planetary Resources [an asteroid mining company] have raised a significant amount of private money. And you have to ask, 'What's the government's role?'"

The Americans are also known to celebrate competition and an entrepreneurial spirit. Those very same things make Europeans nervous. But America has a long history of entrepreneurship.

"I go back to Burt Rutan, the famous airplane designer, who had this secret spaceship program in the Mojave Desert," says Julian Guthrie, author of "How to make a Spaceship," which tells the story of Peter Diamandis' XPrize for private space travel. "Had they had the government breathing down on them and imposing regulations, they would not have been able to achieve what they did. Having said that, most paying passengers would not want to fly in SpaceshipOne [which won the prize]. You want oversight."

USA Mojave Wüste SpaceShipOne
SpaceShipOne, which won the $10 million XPrize in 2004, was a private space program in the Mojave DesertImage: Getty Images/AFP/D. Benc

So you want governments working with private companies. That's the public-private partnership model that the European Space Agency sees as a cornerstone of its Space 4.0 vision.

No exclusive access

But with or without oversight, whether in the desert or in Silicon Valley, US companies have achieved big things where Europe has not. They have been part of the US space program since the start. The Apollo program's Lunar Excursion Module (LEM), which landed on the moon, was made by the Grumman Corporation in New York. Now, Elon Musk's SpaceX flies supplies to the International Space Station. And Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin is as close as anyone has got to building a heavy-lift vehicle since Saturn V.

As the years have progressed, the ways in which NASA and its contractors have collaborated have evolved. In the early days, NASA would pay for everything and expect to own the technology. These days, Dreier says, NASA is more of an "angel investor," injecting funds into startups, with the companies having a tighter grip on their intellectual property (IP).

"What's exciting is the government doesn't maintain total control over the IP, that's a real big shift," says Dreier. "SpaceX owns the design for the Falcon 9. They have an independent launch capability into space. That is a new and novel thing. Governments no longer have exclusive access to space."

Shifting space

It's not something you would have heard in Europe up to now. Government institutions here are slow to act, and "private investors have been conservative on space," says Amnon Ginati, a senior advisor at the European Space Agency (ESA).

US-Unternehmen Blue Origin gelang dritter Raketentest
Space competition is "dynamic" in the US, driven by the dreams of Blue Origin and SpaceXImage: Reuters/Blue Origin

"Elon Musk had his brilliant idea to go to Mars but he realized there weren't enough or the right rockets for the job, so he said he'd start with that," says Ginati. "And that's the entrepreneurial spirit in America. Europeans just weren't there."

But now, says Ginati, "Europe is waking up."      

Ginati helped negotiate the Seraphim Space Fund. It's currently worth £50 million (58 million euros) and is there to encourage small, medium and startup firms working on space-based applications and technologies.

ESA expects the biggest growth in downstream services - technologies that benefit us on Earth, rather than upstream services like infrastructure.

"ESA did far too little on this in the past," says Ginati. "And so [former ESA director general] Jean-Jacques Dordain said, 'Let's support good ideas and when they show business potential, we'll get private investors on board. Because when they smell money, they come.'"

There are now more than 300 projects. They range from unmanned aerial vehicles to tourism, media, smart cities, and security, which Ginati says, "tops the list." The findings from ESA's Citizens' Debate in September would bear that out to a degree, with 69 percent of the participants saying ESA should develop programs to improve security (16 percent were against).

A great magnet of confidence

But ESA will continue to build infrastructure. Talk of a UK spaceport is still on the table. And one company in particular, Reaction Engines, recently received ESA support in the form of a £10 million contract. It's part of their efforts to build a new fuel-efficient engine called SABRE.

(That's the beauty of ESA - it sits outside the EU, so Brexit is a non-issue in space, for now.)

Designed with reusable space planes in mind, SABRE is "a hybrid air-breathing rocket engine that can power an aircraft from a standing start to over five times the speed of sound for hypersonic flight in the atmosphere."

Großbritannien Reaction Engines
Reaction Engines aims to get SABRE ready by about 2025 Image: Reaction Engines

Reaction Engines' chief executive, Mark Thomas, says the UK and Europe are starting to follow a US model for funding.

"The big difference has been the venture capitalists in the US, the Silicon Valley types, the high net-worth individuals, who will set up a space company virtually overnight. So as a startup, to go big you had to be in the US, frankly. But now we sense a shift over here," he says.

But there are a few caveats. Thomas says there need to be a mix of funding. Private funds won't do it alone.

Government backing is "a great magnet to pull in funds from other areas" - but it comes with technical oversight from ESA. "There has to be for you to draw down on taxpayer money," Thomas says.

That said, Reaction Engines owns the IP - it's "a key area" for them - but Thomas sees a need for some of these smart technologies to be shared.

"We have some very smart technology which we've protected," he says. "But there has to be more preparedness to share technologies in collaborative programs. Governments will want to see that."

From program to industry and back again

Collaboration is certainly part of ESA's vision for a "United Space in Europe in the era of Space 4.0." But with ministers from the 22 ESA member states, and Canada, meeting in Lucerne (December 1-2), will their vision be competitive enough to join the Americans in what has so far been their race to win?

NASA Robot Explorer Osiris-Rex
As public-private partnerships grow, will commercial asteroid mining supersede basic science?Image: picture alliance/ZUMA Press/C. Meaney

"Europe has to understand these opportunities are not going to be handed to us on a plate. We need a competitive industry that's supported by government and private investors," says Thomas. "We can see what's happening in the US. It's a massively dynamic market. It's changing in front of our eyes. And we either have to stand up to that, or have some arrangement with the US to enable a more united view of space."   

If Europe manages that and moves from a space program to a space industry, such as it is in the US, this could have benefits other than the purely commercial.

It's a tad utopian, but if we allow companies to focus on building the hardware - the rockets and satellites - and developing space travel opportunities, heck, even asteroid mining, then shouldn't we see more money go into basic science?

That's what I'd like to see, anyway - more science. Casey Dreier likes the idea, too, but he's cautious. There are, he says, practical realities of politics that "complicate the idea."

"Particularly in the US we have some very strong parochial, political reasons why old-school rocket programs get a lot of money," says Dreier. "And if those disappear, it's not necessarily a guarantee that that money would still exist to be used in science. It might just disappear altogether."

But theoretically, if governments spend  less on the hardware, you should have more to focus on the "unique role government can play" - basic research and development and science.

"That's scientific enquiry that not only feeds directly back into people's lives," says Dreier, "but which enriches humanity's understanding of its place in the cosmos, which is not a small thing. It's one of the rare, purely good things that government can do."

DW Zulfikar Abbany
Zulfikar Abbany Senior editor fascinated by space, AI and the mind, and how science touches people