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Space: the Final White Elephant?

{{{ {{Do we need a space policy?}} }}}

The headlines are dramatic:

– The US is spending €35 billion on military and civil space research, which represents six times more than Europe in all its configurations and geography according to the European Commission (DN: IP/03/82, Date: 21/01/2003)

– “Now the US Wants Control of Space” according to Julian Coman of the London “Telegraph”, “The key theme of the ambitious plans is described as ‘negation’

– the denial of the use of space for military intelligence, or other purposes, without American endorsement.” (…) “According to James Roche, the US Air Force Secretary, America’s allies would have ‘no veto power’ over projects designed to achieve American military control of space”;

– China now has put its first man into space with its own launch vehicles leaving Europe behind (if one assumes Russia is, in this context, separate).

No surprise then that the European Commission and the European Space Agency (ESA) launched a Green Paper at the start of 2003 to encourage some new thoughts on how European space policy should evolve. But do we really need any space policy at national or European level? And is the on-going debate addressing the real issues?

{{The sceptic}}

Do these headlines really mean we be pumping vast sums of new public money into space so as to compete for a market that is currently estimated as being worth €400 billion? Given the relatively poor record of public spending in Europe – and the Commission is by no means the worst offender in this case, as Court of Auditor reports constantly point out, there are much bigger failings in many Member States – why should we trust that financing more research in the field of space will bring us anything?

Moreover, what are the actual benefits of having an active space policy, even if the money is well spent? Would there not have been a cheaper way to find how to stop potatoes from clinging to my kitchen utensils than the millions NASA spent developing Teflon? Does use of space bring any tangible benefits, or could the money be better spent on housing, feeding and healing the many poor that we have in our own countries or third world? Is space research just an extended ego trip fed by macho ‘space races’?

{{Some real reasons for space}}

Whilst conceding that there are grounds to be sceptical on a “space at any cost” approach, it is worth recalling that the more prosaic elements of space activity have become integral to our every day life. Satellites guide our aeroplanes, ships and even cars, transmit many of the TV stations we see every day, not to mention servicing our mobile phones. These commercial markets are all part of the cutting edge of information technology, where there are good grounds to want to have a presence. The argument to fund an industry because it is ‘strategic’ in the economic sense, is however a difficult one to make. History is littered with white elephants in strategic sectors.

Curiously, the real reason for needing space policy only appears only between the lines in any official European document: it is military. Given the participation of neutral countries in the EU, as well as others who are very sensitive on defence matters (especially Denmark with its long-standing opt-outs), and similar problems with the ESA (where Switzerland is a Member State) it is very hard for the European institutions to make any kind of a military case in public.

However, regardless of one’s position on whether the EU should have a single army, or if individual Member States should maintain completely separate and sovereign armies, the Iraq war once again showed that there is no way for Europeans to have meaningful military forces in the future if they do not have some form of space capacity. From spy systems, through global navigation (Galileo/GMES), up to and potentially including satellite defence apparatus, Europe (in whatever shape it may be) will need to be present if it wishes to remain a global player.

{{The problem}}

Hence many of the current discussions on space policy miss the real issue. For instance, Galileo is not being attacked by the US because of commercial fears (they offer GPS in any case for free). It is fundamentally a security issue, and Europeans are incapable of responding coherently on this level. The whole justification for public – European level – space policy intervention is being developed on a largely “commercial” justification. Not just is this a recipe for future trade wars (illegal subsidy of activities), it is also an insufficient case.

So here is the challenge thrown down to the EU and ESA authorities: do you want the EU (again, either as a single entity, or for its constituent elements) to have global military ambitions yes, or no? The size and focus of space policy can only be answered in respect of this. If Europe opts instead to be a global Gandhi, much of what is being talked about can be dropped. If Europe wants to become Rambo II, then we will need a NASA too!

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