Space travel: Where are Germany, and Europe, headed?
World / 30 December 2019, 10:22am / Simon Sachseder and Julia Naue
To fly back to the Moon, build a German spaceport, ensure fast internet between thousands of satellites. There are many ideas related to space travel - where do Germany and Europe see opportunities?
Berlin/Seville, Spain - Rocket launches in Germany? "We need independent access to space," Andreas Hammer of the German Aerospace Industries Association said recently about the idea of creating a spaceport on the country's northern coast.
It is yet another indication that Germany - like others - wants to increasingly focus on projects of its own.
The German government's coordinator for aerospace policy, Thomas Jarzombek, argues that it is important for a country to have its own systems in space travel, especially in light of potential crises and conflicts.
Space travel never was free of politics - and the power politics surrounding the issue are now back in full swing. "Space forces" are being created and the NATO military alliance has declared space a separate "operational domain."
But will this trend come at the expense of multinational projects?
The European Space Agency (ESA) laid the groundwork for its joint space projects at a meeting in late November in the Spanish city of Seville, where member states negotiated programmes and their financing.
ESA Director General Jan Woerner urged them to provide more money for shared projects.
"We don't want to be dying out because of a meteorite," he said at the start of the two-day ministerial council in Seville, referring to the space rock that impacted with Earth and killed the dinosaurs.
Particularly dear to the German's heart is the issue of "monitoring and safeguarding" - one of four pillars that ESA will use to structure its projects. The others are: exploring and discovering; services and applications; and designing and operating.
A system for the timely detection and interception of dangerous celestial objects is to be developed, while work is also being done on thwarting other potential threats such as solar flares, which can significantly affect life on Earth.
Space debris is another risk. Around 3,000 out of a total of 4,500 satellites in orbit are no longer active and pose a "very big danger," Woerner said.
"I was reading in a newspaper two days ago: 'Ah, we should not think about space, there are more important things for daily use,'" he said. But he argued that space travel is, contrary to popular opinion, vitally important for daily life on Earth.
In the coming year, ESA's new Ariane 6 rocket is also due to lift off for the first time. Its construction had been decided five years ago. The 60-metre-high rocket is meant to be faster and cheaper than its predecessor.
But is it enough? The market has changed significantly since that decision. The US aerospace company SpaceX, created by technology billionaire Elon Musk, is in particular pushing prices down.
Big parts of the US competitor's rockets are reusable. While the Falcon 9's first-stage booster lands back on Earth, the Ariane 6 remains a disposable product.
From Europe's perspective, the competition is not fair.
"Elon Musk gets billions from NASA to bring some cargo goods to the space station," Woerner said. "The question is whether he really needs those billions for the service or if it allows him to offer cheaper commercial launches on the market."
Even EU institutions often prefer to fly with a SpaceX rocket - including the German armed forces, which recently still had plans to transport three spy satellites into space with SpaceX.
"We are unsure what the commercial prospects for Ariane 6 look like," Jarzombek had said in July.
Pierre Godart, the Germany head of the manufacturer ArianeGroup, spoke of security aspects: "Space travel is applicable to so many important areas: weather forecasts, border controls, internet, network reception, television and much more."
Critical infrastructure is involved, he said.
"Do we really want to make ourselves dependent on others in this regard?" he asked. "In space travel, this holds true: without sovereignty on the launch pad, no sovereignty in orbit."
In any case, the rocket and the International Space Station (ISS) account for a sizeable share of German investments in ESA. Both will likely be maintained.
In the future, however, the German government wants to see small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and start-ups profit more from investments in space travel. It is an explicit goal to improve their prospects in the sector, according to Jarzombek.
"Space SMEs are our leading theme," he wrote on Twitter. They have "missed out a little" amid the big issues such as the ISS and Ariane, he said.
Germany is also focused on Earth observation satellites, which are important for climate research.
For Klaus Schilling of the University of Wuerzburg, it is not only money that is significant in the end: "You can also strive for market leadership in important niche areas with prioritizations and a good implementation strategy."
But how much money is needed to deal with these challenges?
In 2019, ESA had a total budget of 5.72 billion euros (6.32 billion dollars), 73 per cent of which was funded by member states. With 927 million euros, Germany is the second-largest contributor after France (1.2 billion euros). Institutional partners such as the EU also contribute.
Over the next three years, an increase of around 10 per cent is being eyed.
Woerner underlined that ESA is seeking a contribution from member states of only 8 euros per year and per citizen. A survey conducted by the agency among 5,000 Europeans found that people would be willing to on average spend 287 euros per capita and year.
"The message is: people, the normal people are really fond of space," Woerner said. "They want to see space, they want us to be active in space."