Europe in Space

Commercialisation of space a 'priority' for European Space Agency

The SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule, with four astronauts on board, including France's Thomas Pesquet, took off from Cape Canaveral headed for the International Space Station, Friday 22 April 2021.
The SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule, with four astronauts on board, including France's Thomas Pesquet, took off from Cape Canaveral headed for the International Space Station, Friday 22 April 2021. AP

French astronaut Thomas Pesquet’s second flight to the International Space Station marked the first time a European astronaut has used of a commercial vehicle to go into space. For Josef Aschbacher, head of the European Space Agency, that combination of public and private involvement is the key to the future development of space research.


“This flight is significant because it shows that commercial space partners like SpaceX can work together with public institutions like NASA and the ESA. I would call it, for Europe at least, the initiation of the commercialisation of space,” Josef Aschbacher, director general of the European Space Agency (ESA) told RFI.

Pesquet flew to the International Space Station (ISS) on board the SpaceX Crew Dragon. The mission is scheduled to last six months, with more than 100 experiments to be carried out by the crew during this period. The Alpha mission is also special for the 43-year-old French astronaut as, one month before returning to Earth, he will take over as the commander of the ISS.

Aschbacher points to the huge gulf between the US and Europe when it comes to private investment in space. 

“Last year, the private capital in space was about $5 billion in the US, compared to about 200 million euros in Europe. Europe has to not only catch up with the US in this area but also develop its own strategy. Therefore, in ‘Agenda 2025’, I have prioritised the commercialisation of space,” he said.

Playing catch-up  

Pesquet’s flight aboard a SpaceX Crew Dragon is also an indication of the ESA’s changing preference of launch vehicles. Since the retirement of NASA’s Space Shuttle programme in 2011, European astronauts have been using the Russian Soyuz spacecraft for spaceflights. But that is set to change.

“In the past, our astronauts flew a lot aboard Soyuz. But it is true that in the future we will most likely fly more and more with US provided spacecraft. Whether it is Crew Dragon or another spacecraft is to be decided, as it also depends on decisions by NASA.” 

When asked if the ESA has plans for sending a mission to Mars or colonising the Moon, Aschbacher replied that this was something the politicians in Europe needed to decide. “Of course, the ESA can do it, because we build a spacecraft, we build a rocket, but the decision has to be a political one.” 

He said that Europe first has to catch up with the US and China in order to realise the dream of going to Mars. “In those two countries, space has a huge importance in society. It also contributes to their economies. I would like to make people, especially top level politicians in Europe, aware of it.”

European Space Agency chief Josef Aschbacher.
European Space Agency chief Josef Aschbacher. © Anthony Ravera

World leader in Earth observation

Aschbacher said that, besides exploring other worlds, space technologies are being used for the benefit of the people. “The ESA provides the means and the tools for space to be helpful for everyone and not just for a small segment. Our satellites observe the climate, weather, changes on our planet, deforestation, changes of weather patterns because of climate change. All of this can be measured.”

He said that this knowledge helps scientists and politicians to make better decisions. 

He added that Europe could be proud of its Earth observation programmes. “The Americans say we are the gold standard in Earth observation from space. That's quite rare because you hear space headlines from the US and China, but not always from Europe. But in Earth observation, Europe has established global leadership.”

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