Space X: private company launch of astronauts highlights gap between Americans and Europeans in space

Space X: private company launch of astronauts highlights gap between Americans and Europeans in space

Invited by franceinfo this Sunday, the specialist in space issues Xavier Pasco deciphers the Americans’ desire to conquer space with the help of private industrialists. He calls on the European space agency to “invent a political vision”.

The four astronauts sent in the SpaceX capsule to the International Space Station, Sunday, November 15, 2020 (SPACEX / AFP)

The launch of astronauts by SpaceX allows the US government “to reorganize its space program” and D’”add some American prestige and resources for major exploration programs“, Analyzed Sunday on franceinfo Xavier Pasco, director of the Foundation for Strategic Research (FRS), specialist in space issues. On the night of Sunday to Monday (Paris time), the American private launcher must send four astronauts to the International Space Station on behalf of NASA. This first operational flight by a private carrier, led by Elon Musk, should push Europe to “invent its political vision and its commercial outlets“.

This first operational flight of a private carrier, does that mean that space becomes the battlefield of immense fortunes?

Space has indeed undergone transformations in recent years with these new manufacturers who are not manufacturers of the traditional space sector like Boeing or Lockheed, for example, or Airbus for Europe, but who are making their fortune more broadly with the Internet, the world of information. What we see happening with these new players is a way, for the American government, to reorganize its space program by counting on this immense fortune to add a little to the American prestige and to the resources for the large programs of exploration.

Is this a windfall for NASA?

It is something that did not fall from the sky. These companies were born in the early 2000s and they took advantage of a first movement of delegation of public service to the commercial sector which took place in the 1990s. public funds and continue to benefit from the public windfall, but which, in return, also generate resources, open up commercial horizons. And NASA, in this case, intends to take advantage of it by becoming, in a way, a customer of service provided by these companies.

Until then, NASA had to rely on Europe, on our Ariane rocket in particular. Where is she at? Has it become completely obsolete?

No, the Ariane rocket is not becoming obsolete. The Ariane rocket, historically, is a rocket which very quickly found its marks from a commercial point of view. For years, the Ariane rocket has occupied more than half of commercial launches. That means about ten flights per year, knowing that in fact, there are about 80 to 100 satellites per year, the rest being government flights. But the Ariane rocket had found its cruising speed. Obviously, with SpaceX, soon to be Blue Origin, then other rockets from other countries in India or China, the commercial share is shrinking. And so, it’s a little harder for Ariane today to win.

Does this show that the European Space Agency is largely weakened in this story?

The European Space Agency, which is not an agency of the European Union but which is historically the first European organization to make space, is first and foremost a research agency. It is a scientific agency that mainly launches scientific satellites. And I would say that, more broadly, it is Europe that must find its place in the new balance. Today, the United States, China, India, are very active governments and launch a lot of satellites, a lot of material in orbit, probably a little more than Europe. And Europe, from this point of view, supports its own launcher less than other countries do with theirs. So it’s a real political issue.

And we do not have in Europe, these billionaires a little crazy, even completely crazy, who are launching like that in the space adventure.

It turns out that we don’t have the Gafa in Europe, nor an Elon Musk who intends to go to Mars. Even if we can doubt that, it actually gives an almost political vision that a space agency normally has. And there now, we have private actors who have this type of vision. But it also has the ambition to create the great constellation of satellites, more than 40 satellites in orbit, to broadcast the Internet all over the world. There, it benefits from the presence in the United States of major players who know how to promote this, Microsoft and other Gafa. In Europe we don’t have that. It is up to us to invent our political vision and also our commercial outlets.