The European Space Agency (ESA), which will define its new programs next week, must “strengthen its strategic independence” weakened by the war in Ukraine, in a world extremely dependent on space infrastructure, said the agency’s director general, Josef Aschbacher , in an interview with AFP.
QUESTION: You ask the 22 Member States [of ESA] for a contribution of 18.7 billion euros, 25% more than three years ago. How do you justify such an increase?
ANSWER: Space budgets are increasing all over the world. Look at NASA’s, with increases of the same order, and we are only talking about civilian programs. In China, when we see the results of the launchers, the satellites, the missions to the Moon and Mars (…) it is something impressive and we are undoubtedly, also there, facing a double-digit [budget] increase.
Private investments, meanwhile, exploded in 2022. We have entered a new era with the commercialization of the space sector, which until about five years ago was mainly an institutional affair. But when it comes to private investment, Europe is several years behind the United States. That’s not good. With this financial ‘package’, I want to strengthen commercialization, to create a new space economy.
Q: The war in Ukraine upset the post-Cold War space balance and strengthened Europe’s dependence on the United States. How can you get out of it?
A: Space has a central role in this crisis, because the aggressor, Russia, is a great space power. After the invasion of Ukraine [which ended the Russian-European ExoMars mission and deprived Europe of the Soyuz launchers, NDLR] we have received very strong US support, and that makes me happy. At the same time, one cannot be a good partner if one is not a strong partner. That is why Europe has to strengthen its capacities, its autonomy of access to space and its strategic independence: we must accelerate our investments more than ever, because if not, we will be left out of the race.
Without the war, it would probably have been easier to get the funds. [But] on the other hand, because of the war, people realize the importance of space for their safety and in their daily lives. We depend much more than we think on space infrastructures and underestimate their vulnerability. Look what happens in Ukraine: a constellation of an American firm [Space X] provides a satellite service so that they can have the internet. Without it, they would not be able to communicate properly. Many people don’t realize how much space helps them deal with this crisis.
Q: How do you perceive the intra-European competition between France, Germany and Italy on small pitchers?
A: The pitching program is extremely strategic. Of course there is competition (although I don’t like that word) and this can be healthy. I know that France, Italy and Germany may have different interests, but at ESA our role is to define a common ground, something that works very well in Earth observation, navigation, telecommunications, exploration. If we had the money that Americans spend on pitchers, it would be easier (…).
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