Why go to space? Not just for the photos...

The European Space Agency (ESA) ministerial council took place last December and the new ESA budget was agreed for 2017-2021. As always, a lot of comments are circulating on who gained what, who lost what, and what the future looks like for each ‘community’ in the European space arena. I will not try to explain what the new ESA budget signifies; other, much more knowledgeable people, have made their opinions heard on the topic (http://www.esf.org/newsroom/news-and-press-releases/article/european-space-sciences-committee-essc-welcomes-outcomes-from-esa-ministerial-council-meeting/). For the purpose of this article, it is sufficient to say that there have been budget undersubscriptions to the European space program (For ESA, member states subscribe to budget items proposed. If member states do not put enough money, an item is undersubscribed, meaning the requested budget level is not reached with whatever implications that means for the item).


When one is thinking about budgets, the question must arise: why spend money on this at all? Much has been written about the interest of a space program over the last half century or so, but most of the literature I have come across is from an American perspective. It is worth asking whether the rationale that led the US to embark on space exploration holds true for Europe as well.

Is a space program a worthwhile pursuit? 

To explore this question, we can first look at the broad rationale for humans to develop a space program.  In very broad terms (without going into details of scientific fields or exploration targets - discussions that can ignite the conversation in the space circles worse than a busted oxygen tank during lift off… ) the reasons that humanity might choose to develop a space programme are (in NO particular order of preference):

Scientific progress: This is probably the easiest reason to understand. We go to space because there is wonderful science to be done there. It is quite amazing the range of scientific fields that require either access to space or space data to feed in to their analysis and models. From Earth observations, space weather and astronomy, to archaeology (yes, you can discover ancient ruins via satellite data), marine science and disease monitoring, there are numerous disciplines that utilise space data and assets.

Technology Development: another celebrated raison d’être for space programmes, technology development implies the transfer of technologies from space to Earth in order to benefit other industries. GPS, cell phones, and satellite television are all possible only through presence in space (add another list of things that exist on Earth only thanks to technological innovations from the space program). Each individual’s life is arguably better, today, thanks to space. We can only assume that future breakthroughs will have a similarly significant impact.

Survival of the species: This argument, championed by many, Dr Hawkins being perhaps the most prominent advocate, comes in two parts; First part calls for the establishment of another foothold for humanity, in order to ensure that part of the species survives if we do follow through with some of our less intelligent urges and manage to wipe ourselves out. The second aspect calls for development of the capability to defend the Earth from ‘space threats.’ Space invaders aside, we have already had it seems two major asteroid impacts in the past that resulted in species extinctions [Triassic–Jurassic and the Cretaceous–Paleogene extinctions, which seemed to help give rise to the dinosaurs and then eliminate them respectively]. Nothing can ensure that there is zero probability for another one. Even if not enough to cause Earth-wide extinction events, even a smallish asteroid hitting a populated area would cause enormous catastrophe. 

I will grant you that setting up a foothold on another celestial body is still far away for our technology level, but asteroid defence is something that we can do today. The trick is to develop useful things for other tasks as well (technology development – we’ll come to this later). I myself am partial to large nuclear spacecraft (http://www.h2020-democritos.eu/ ) parked in orbit close to a dangerous asteroid, that use the minuscule (but significant over a large period) force of their own gravity (these are heavy spacecrafts) to nudge the asteroid slightly away from its trajectory and hopefully making it miss the Earth by a small margin – the so called “mass tractors.” The good thing about those spacecraft is that they can also be used to carry a lot of stuff to a place, say a Martian base or a Moon village, the so called “space tug” concept.

International cooperation: The topic of international cooperation is something that always comes up when taking about space. The difficulty of the endeavour sometimes overrides the nationalistic rhetoric and overcomes Earthly border difficulties. Space is one of the most obvious arenas where international cooperation was demonstrated; the ISS, made of US, Russian, European and Japanese parts is still flying over our heads every day. 

Exploration of course is another favourite. We go to space because we want to explore the final frontier. 

Inspiration: And taking into account all of the above, space research and exploration are certainly very strong pulls for young scientists and engineers but also for the general public to the areas of STEM. Basically, space is cool (it really is, temperature get close to -270.45 Celsius at some places!). From footprints on the Moon, to robots on Mars, to orbiters of the Moons of Saturn, to probes to Pluto and beyond, space exploration has captured the imagination of generations.

So far so good. The above reasons are always given when asked to justify going to space, especially when the discussion comes up in international fora. These are very powerful arguments on their own, but there are more reasons that are not perhaps obvious from a first treatment of the topic, and which are almost certainly more influential on an individual nation’s decision to develop a space program.


The self-interest of states

It is important to understand that states/governments have also reasons to go to space and possibly have a different approach to ‘why go to space’.

A very important reason to develop a space programme is of course national security. Access to space is paramount in the modern technological era. If you want your armed forces to be considered modern, you have to have access to imaging satellites, accurate weather data, radar data from space, geolocation signals (GPS, Galileo etc), secured communications everywhere in your territory (and beyond) and other applications of ‘military space’. 

The small elephant in the room is of course access to space itself. Think about it, if you can’t put things on your own in space, you may not actually have any space capabilities in case of war (who is going to put your stuff up there?). The bigger elephant in the room is of course the capability of putting things into space and then bringing them down again at high speed (i.e. ICBMs), but generally I think we can all agree that access to space makes A LOT of sense from a security perspective. 

To move away from the alarmist tone, the space programme is also a way to push economic development. There is already substantial commercial activity in space, without talking about the ‘New Space’ initiative, which is the effort from the US government to foster space start-ups and make access to space (or ISS at least) a commercial enterprise. Communication satellites have been going strong for many years now. We all know that TV is popular. TV signals are bounced back and forth via satellites to reach the receivers. It is the same case with some mobile and internet signals as well. But in addition to all that, government programmes are paying the salaries of thousands of engineers and scientists and managers in private companies. So the adage that ‘money is not spent is space; it stays here on Earth’ holds true for all space activities. 

An additional economically-motivated reason to go to space can be summed up by the words of Michael Griffin, NASA administrator, in a speech given to the World Economic forum in 2007: ‘I believe that we must recognize that the development of space is a strategic capability for our nations, and that we must bring the solar system into our economic sphere of influence.’ Minerals, energy, water, there is a wealth of resources scattered around the solar system. It is tricky to get them, but once you do, the possibilities are enormous. It is also true that we don’t have the capability to exploit these resources yet, but unless we try to do it, we will never acquire that capability and they will remain locked away from us. 

The final reason for nations to embark on a space programme is national prestige. This holds true for certain activities more than others. No one can deny that the US solidified their image as the most technologically developed nation because they are the only ones to have put a human on the Moon. I think it can be argued that when another nation does this as well, it will cause a huge political and cultural change in the world. How this cultural advantage is translated to international affairs is perhaps difficult to define but it is a real effect.

And what about Europe?

So regarding the European perspective on why to go to space, all of the above reasons apply in one way or another. Europe has a very active space sciences community, with world class scientists in many fields and probably the most active community in terms of international collaborations. In terms of technology development, Europe is doing quite well. While we are not leaders in all fields, Europe has proven its ability to do complicated things. Rosetta is a great recent example, we are moving onwards to Mars and we are, again, very active in international projects.

While ESA’s and national agencies’ brand recognition is not at the NASA level, it is getting better. Europe is part of the ISS effort (we did build a lot of it), we have visited asteroids, Venus, Mars, Jupiter (with NASA), Saturn and Titan (with NASA), the Moon, soon Mercury, we have Deep space Telescopes in L1, the whole gamut. Rosetta marked a change in the way ESA was handling communication activities and that will definitely have a great impact on European youths being inspired by European achievements.

The importance of maintaining the industrial base, the scientific knowhow, and all the ecosystem that is around the European space programme cannot be overemphasized. It is much more difficult and expensive to build something from scratch, especially in the space arena where things are very hard to do, than it is to maintain established competences. If for some reason, Europe stops funding a particular activity, some years in the future when we might need to restart these activities, the people, industry and know-how will NOT be there waiting for us. There is no guarantee that the ‘revival’ will then happen in an orderly manner or at least as fast and/or cheaply as we would like. 

As concerns national security or, for Europe, perhaps supranational security, we are lagging far behind the US and Russia in terms of capabilities, but nevertheless we have some: optical reconnaissance, radar reconnaissance, waterways protection, etc. are being actively developed. Galileo will also contribute significantly to this effort, and we now have our own geolocation service that no one can switch off at a whim.

Finally, since Russia, the US, and China are all active in space, and do not show signs of backing off, space exploration is inevitable, and the benefits of having a presence in space are quite significant, and will become more so as the military and economic exploitation of space ramp up. Europe has proven its ability to be a player in space, and should not allow itself to be left behind. 

So there you have it. Europe should be in space, and I would argue that Europe needs to press its advantages and develop its weaknesses in space with coordinated technology development as a driving force:

  • Europe should maintain its leading position in Science by ensuring that no community is weakened or defunded (same thing really) and ensure that great science is being done. Our Earth observation programmes are very well developed and it would be a pity to slow down the pace, especially now that it seems that others might scale theirs back for political reasons. Our research on life and physical sciences in space is also world-class, we have to be careful, now that we are reaching the ISS end-of-life, to try to identify the correct way forward for this community. Other communities are also either on the leading or second best position in the world (counting results, publications and collaborations as the metric).
  • Europe should focus on economic development because this would facilitate everything else, not only to maintain the industrial base (which we are doing) but also to grow it. Emphasis on new ways of doing things and, especially, new markets should be a priority. The EC seems to be focusing on this in trying to adopt new funding instruments to develop this effect, which is an excellent sign, but it is not an easy task. 
  • The new initiative for an EU army could be an opportunity to enhance the space base capabilities of Europe when it comes to security. There is no reason to be either shy or naïve about it, almost all of us want to live in a peaceful world, but there are some that don’t. Everyone knows that the right tools make the job much easier and space is an excellent tool for us. It would be a shame to not use it.


Image credit - Artist’s impression of Rosetta as it flies by asteroid Steins, ESA - C. Carreau


The views expressed by the authors of the Science Connector Blog articles do not necessarily represent the views of the European Science Foundation as a whole, or of its members.

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