Reliance on US tech to get into orbit is causing jitters, as the prospect of a second Trump presidency gets closer.
The EU has vowed to safeguard its access to space, as the failure of the landmark Ariane programme leaves the bloc reliant on US launchers.
An “unprecedented crisis” required a “paradigm shift”, the European Commission’s Thierry Breton told a conference in Brussels today (23 January), after repeated delays to Ariane 6 put ambitions at risk.
Launchers are required to get space projects into orbit – including the EU’s satellite navigation system Galileo, and environmental monitoring technology Copernicus.
But last year the bloc was forced to buy services from SpaceX, a project from American billionaire Elon Musk, in order to get off the ground.
Ariane 5 made its final journey in July 2023 after decades of service, but its successor has faced repeated delays from an original 2020 start date.
The hiatus left Breton blushing, since as internal market commissioner responsible for both digital regulation and space policy he’s squabbled separately with Musk over governance at social network X, previously Twitter.
It’s also causing concern over European independence – on the day when the New Hampshire primaries are likely to signal a warning over the stability of transatlantic security ties.
“We will know today if Donald Trump is likely to be the next American president,” said Thomas Dermine, State Secretary for Strategic Investments in Belgium, which is currently chairing the EU Council grouping of member states.
“The fact that we live with stable allies with the US is not a given for sure in the future, and this must be a wake-up call,” Dermine said, adding: “We will need increasingly to rely on our own European resources.”
The European Space Agency is keen to stress that teething troubles with Ariane, part-owned by France’s Airbus, can be resolved, as can those with Italy’s Vega C programme.
“We have overcome significant technical problems in the development of Ariane 6,” ESA’s Director General Josef Aschbacher told the conference, promising a launch window in the latter half of June, or July. “Both launchers are now on track.”
But, for Breton, ESA activities still aren’t enough to get the bloc out of its fix.
“Europe has lost its independent access to space,” putting at risk the sovereign development of its flagship space initiatives, Breton said. “There are still too many conservatisms and postures that do not serve Europe”.
“We need to go further and join forces to radically change our European approach,” defining a “European launcher policy within an EU framework,” he added – promising measures to aggregate demand for launchers from European civilian and military institutions and boost research.