Exploring the European Union's Space Policy
Last week, the European Commission in Brussels hosted the fifth annual conference on the European Union Space Policy. The EU’s space policy was first adopted in the spring of 2007 and aims to provide a common political framework to align the space activities of the European Space Agency and the twenty-nine member states of the European Union – no easy task and one that still provides some heated debate! Within the EU space policy, space science and exploration can sometimes feel like ‘Cinderellas’ compared to the behemoth programmes of Galileo (Europe’s Global Satellite-Based Navigation System), Copernicus (Global Monitoring for Environment and Security) and the Ariane launch system.
Fortunately for Google Lunar X PRIZE, there are some ‘fairy godmothers’ around to wave a flag – if not a magic wand – for exploration of the solar system. At the conference in Brussels, Professor Anne Glover (Chief Scientific Advisor to the European Commission) gave a strong message that space is open to all Europe’s citizens – chiming with Google Lunar X PRIZE’s aspiration of showing people of all ages how they can personally contribute to a worthy and exciting endeavour like space exploration. Glover quoted a recent EuroBarometer report finding that 81% of respondents thought that space technology was useful, but she added that the actual awareness of Europe’s space activities remains quite low amongst EU citizens. Glover championed the role that missions like Europe’s comet chaser, Rosetta, can play in inspiring the next generation of scientists and engineers. She also pointed out that advancing our knowledge of space is not just down to governments, agencies and professionals. The popularity of citizen science programmes e.g. Galaxy Zoo demonstrate the willingness of the public to actually become involved and make themselves useful in crunching data. Glover urged the assembled representatives of agencies, EU institutions and industry to think seriously about how to make use of this model, which she described as an enabling, not prescriptive, approach.
Another speaker that struck a chord with Google Lunar X PRIZE objectives was the director of ESA’s technical hub, ESTEC, Franco Ongaro. In a conference where discussions of innovation and growth were dominated by the downstream applications of satellite communications and navigation, Ongaro emphasized the value of the missions themselves as a technological driver and the range of expertise and skills needed to put together a successful mission, not just from large-scale industry but in the 20-25% of ESA funding going to small and medium-sized enterprises.
Finally, one of the most thought provoking comments was made by the UK Space Agency’s Dave Parker, who pointed out that there is currently no regulatory framework in the EU to deal with space tourism. With Virgin Galactic due to start operations in the next year and the Swedish base at Kiruna working to transform itself into a commercial spaceport – not to mention companies gearing up for asteroid mining and Google Lunar X PRIZE teams paving the way for a return to the Moon – it’s clear that the EU space policy needs to wake up to the new era of space entrepreneurship and the NewSpace economy!