An official European Space Policy was adopted for the first time in May at a joint ESA/EU meeting in Brussels.
Details can be found in the documents available here.
The Space Policy is described in "COMMUNICATION FROM THE COMMISSION TO THE COUNCIL AND THE EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT -- European Space Policy". This is "a joint document of the European Commission and the Director General of the ESA" (p.5).
The Space Policy is launched with a quotation from a 1987 UN report:
In the middle of the 20th century, we saw our planet from space for the first time. Historians may eventually find that this vision had a greater impact on thought than did the Copernican revolution of the 16th century, which upset the human self-image by revealing that the Earth is not the centre of the Universe. From Space, we see a small and fragile ball dominated not by human activity and edifice but by a pattern of clouds, oceans, greenery and soils.
The benefits of space are listed: science, Earth observation, navigation, communications. In addition, "Space can contribute to European cohesion and identity, reaching citizens across all countries", and again on p.9: "The international exploration endeavour has a significant political appeal in a vision of European identity" -- an illogical claim, since that "international" is global, not specifically European, but the idea is clearly targeted at a European political readership.
The European Space Policy has a "strategic mission" aimed at "global leadership in selected policy areas in accordance with European interests and values" (p.5-6). This strategic mission will seek five objectives, which I quote here in full:
(1) "to develop and exploit space applications serving Europe's public policy objectives and the needs of European enterprises and citizens, including in the field of environment, development and global climate change;"
(2) "to meet Europe's security and defence needs as regards space;"
(3) "to ensure a strong and competitive space industry which fosters innovation, growth and the development and delivery of sustainable, high quality, cost-effective services;"
(4) "to contribute to the knowledge-based society by investing strongly in space-based science, and playing a significant role in the international exploration endeavour;"
(5) "to secure unrestricted access to new and critical technologies, systems and capabilities in order to ensure independent European space applications."
The next section starts: "The key to securing the maximum political, economic and social return from investment in space technologies lies in the development and exploitation of space applications, meeting the objectives of EU policies and the needs of European enterprises and citizens" (p.6). Those applications are:
In addition there are as part of the governmental promotion of science and technology:
We then move on to a discussion of the ISS (p.9-10). We are told: "Human spaceflight and exploration are emblematic aspects of space" -- i.e. they are not applications, but political emblems. The work being done on the ISS offers "innovative applications for the benefit of people on Earth [...] and in the preparation for future planetary missions" -- i.e. it focuses either on Earth, or on future government missions, not on orbital activity as such.
Low Earth orbital space tourism, by far the largest potential market involving "the needs of European enterprises and citizens" which might logically benefit from ISS work, and one with a high potential for "innovation, growth and the development and delivery of sustainable, high quality, cost-effective services", is not mentioned, here or anywhere else in the document.
Europe's goals in manned spaceflight and planetary exploration are "to achieve optimum utilisation of the International Space Station; prepare for a visible, affordable and robust exploration programme, involving the development and demonstration of innovative technologies and capabilities and the robotic exploration of Mars, to search for evidence of life and understand the planet's habitability" -- i.e. they are focused on pure science and ignore the potential practical resources of space (in the midst of a looming energy crisis on Earth).
Next we consider access to space: "Independent and cost-effective access to space needs to remain a strategic goal for Europe" (p.10). Yet the penny still has not dropped: by "access to space", EU-ESA means "access to space for unmanned satellites and a tiny number of manned government missions (and the occasional multimillionaire) only". Despite a nod to "continued commercial success in world markets", EU-ESA still fails to understand that only a mass market can achieve the cost-effective and reliable transport service it wants.
The inbuilt assumptions favour a monopoly operator (the Guyana spaceport) and traditional throwaway rockets -- "the ESA-developed Vega launcher and the Russian Soyuz launcher joining Ariane 5". The critical next stage of development -- moving from throwaway rockets to reusable winged designs -- is ignored, despite David Ashford's demonstration, under contract to ESA more than a decade ago, of the potential of spaceplanes.
The next section argues the strategic importance of a competitive European space industry, while avoiding mention of any "new and critical technologies" which might put it in danger of shouldering the burden of leadership in space -- reusable spaceplanes, prospecting of asteroid resources, a demonstration of space-based solar power, or a demonstration of efficient and cost-effective accommodation for people in orbit.
To achieve competitiveness, "it is essential that European public policy actors define clear policy objectives in space activities and invest public funds to achieve them" (p.10). Furthermore, "Space is a lead market in which public authorities can create conditions for industry-led innovation" (p.11). The "new and critical technologies" which I have just noted would therefore appear to qualify for public policy treatment.
The next section is on governance and institutional frameworks, EU-ESA cooperation and so on. It boldly states: "ESA and its Member and Co-operating States will develop space technologies and systems, supporting innovation and global competitiveness and preparing for the future." Given that a paragraph is devoted to saying what needs to be done about allocating the radio spectrum (p.11), but that, as we have seen, certain vital near-future "new and critical technologies" fail to be mentioned at all, it seems clear that "preparing for the future" should be read as "preparing for the present".
Finally, an Annex on p.14-15 lists twelve key near-term actions which will be taken to implement the European Space Policy:
So, where does this leave us?
For me, the most significant impression is this: while there is an emphasis on innovation, competitiveness and responding to global challenges, the innovation etc. in mind is actually micro-innovation, conceived at the level of systems or subsystems in existing programmes. Programmatic innovation is non-existent: there is a total failure to think strategically.
One might argue that it is not the business of ESA or EU civil servants to think strategically -- that is the concern of their political masters. But European politicians have many mundane distractions, and it is surely up to the civil servants who manage space professionally to educate them as to the possibilities.
Perhaps the two key near-future possibilities for development in space are democratisation and the use of the natural resources of space.
Democratisation is a process familiar from many examples. A new technology starts out as a curiosity, a plaything for the elite. Only later does it become accessible to a mass public -- and only then does it transform society. The process has been seen in the invention and use of mechanical clocks, printing and literacy, shipping, road transport, aviation, radio and television, computers, mobile phones, and so on.
Space clearly has the power to transform society when a significant fraction of the public can personally fly in space. The market is there, the first private space explorers have already flown despite the high cost and time commitment required, and the technology to deliver spaceflight to the masses has been available for years, as David Ashford and Patrick Collins have demonstrated. Only the belief is lacking -- the commitment to make the extraordinary commonplace, to put a TV set in every sitting-room, a mobile phone in every pocket, a model T Ford outside every house, an internet connection in every home and workplace, and a holiday in space, at least once in a lifetime, within the budget of every family.
Why is official Europe failing to encourage, promote, subsidise, pump-prime and kick-start the democratisation of space travel in every way possible?
The natural resources of space are by now too obvious to need much elaboration. Europe should have a policy of comprehensively prospecting the volatiles and strategic metals content of as many near-Earth asteroids as possible, using a fleet of robotic spacecraft off a production line. Given the spur of energy dependency on possibly unfriendly states, and the limitless supply from the Sun, Europe should already have attached a sense of urgency to building prototype solar power satellites, evaluating their practicality through real-world tests and assaying the material resources of space which can be brought to bear on the problem.
(NB there has been some talk of helium-3 production on the Moon. It should be noted that such an industry presupposes a pre-existing large-scale solar power industry to power the energy-intensive extraction of solar wind gases from the regolith, and also the existence of second-generation nuclear fusion reactors which can use helium-3.)
Why is official Europe continuing to imagine that robotic satellites represent the last word in commercial space applications? Why is it limiting its exploration beyond low Earth orbit to pure science in the teeth of a looming energy crisis?
All in all, the European Space Policy must be regarded as a total failure of vision, and a lost opportunity for Europe to lead in shaping the future.
Just as with sub-orbital public access to space, we shall have to continue to wait for private-sector billionaires to lead the way into a sustainable space future capable of growth, while the publicly funded agencies such as ESA mark time, maintaining existing applications, and planning manned deep-space exploration missions which are perceived as irrelevant by the majority of the public.
N.B. -- Further reactions to the European Space Policy (including favourable ones) would be very welcome for publishing in the next issue of Astronautical Evolution.
The internet forum Europe In Space has held its first poll, and the results are as follows:
POLL QUESTION: Should Europe have its own independent manned spaceflight programme?
CHOICES AND RESULTS
-- Yes, Europe should develop its own manned spaceflight capability -- 10 votes
-- No, it should partner with another space agency -- 2 votes
-- No, it's better to leave space travel to the robots -- 1 vote
In addition, there was at least one strong abstention (objection that one's position was not catered for by the options on offer).
Of course it's hardly surprising that a self-selected group of those Europeans most interested in space should come out strongly in favour of better manned access to space. And this is a priority shared by ESA itself -- a point that was made several times at the Edinburgh exploration workshop.
The question is rather how autonomous European manned spaceflight can be sold to a broader European public whose priorities are not space, but such things as jobs, energy, the health service, security against terrorism, global peace and development, the climate panic, and so on.
All European readers are encouraged to join the debate!
[Note: the astronautical viewpoint, and the scientific worldview in general, has so far lacked a theory of consciousness which makes much sense and which is capable of standing up against the concept of a God-created soul, inherited from traditional monotheism. If we are going to talk about the significance of spreading conscious life from one tiny world out into the Galaxy at large, we'd better have a fair idea of what the actual place of rational consciousness in the universe is. -- S.A.]
From: Stephen Ashworth
To: New Scientist Letters (letters--at--newscientist.com)
Subject: Does the universe exist when nobody's looking?
The science of mind has long needed to take proper account of the fact that consciousness cannot be explained as as byproduct of the working of the material brain. Now we are reminded that quantum theory too depends on the presence of conscious observers: "Rather than passively observing it, we in fact create reality" (Vlatko Vedral, Uni of Leeds, quoted in "Reality Check", 23 June, p 32).
Clearly, in both sciences a psychic field model of consciousness is required, in which consciousness takes its rightful place as a fundamental aspect of nature, alongside spacetime, mass-energy and the fundamental forces.
It is satisfying to see two branches of science pointing towards the same advance in our understanding.
Stephen Ashworth (Mr)
29 June 2007
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