ArianeGroup has committed to reducing the cost of Ariane 6 by 40% compared to Ariane 5. That means fewer people, and more robots. Credit: ArianeGroup

PARIS — A European trade union urged European governments not to tamper with the geographic-return rules long in use at the 22-nation European Space Agency (ESA) and called for the creation of a space technology R&D program similar to the Clean Sky and SESAR efforts in aeronautics.

In a reflection of the growing belief in Europe that the space sector has become an engine for economic growth that now may be under threat, the IndustriAll European Trade Union’s space-policy document asks governments to limit the use of non-European technology in Europe unless the source nation’s market is equally open.

The position paper, “EU Space Strategy: Safeguard Competitiveness, Safeguard Jobs,” has proposals that will alternately upset the European Union’s executive commission, ESA, individual EU governments the managers of Europe’s space industry.

Geographical return, a perennial subject of debate in Europe, is a founding pillar of ESA and the glue that binds together nations whose wherewithal is as different as Germany’s is to Ireland’s.

It requires ESA to return to a national government more than 90% of the government’s investment in ESA in the form of contracts to national industry.

European industry officials have estimated that geographic return adds around 20% to the cost of a given ESA program, both in increased overhead costs and in propping up companies that would not otherwise survive.

The European Commission does not use geographical return.

For IndustriAll, the policy has demonstrated its value. the organization calls on EU policy makers “to consider the notion of geographical return as a factor of European cohesion, not as a restraint on profitability.”

European industry, and some European government officials, would argue that it’s both.

ArianeGroup, which is prime contractor for the heavy-lift Ariane 5 and future Ariane 6 rockets, comes in for special treatment by IndustriAl.

The company has announced that it must reduce its staff by around 2,300 equivalent-full-time positions by 2023-2024, when Ariane 5 is retired and the less-costly Ariane 6 takes over.

IndustriAll calls for “a commitment from employers that the consolidation of projects will not lead to job losses. This includes ending the current restructuring within the ArianeGroup and the potential 2,300 job losses — a quarter of its European work force — which is the greatest urgency to the European space sector.”

ArianeGroup has said it expects the vast majority of the work force reduction to occur by the retirement of Ariane 5-dedicated employees and the transfer of others to ArianeGroup’s strategic-missile and other military work.

The ArianeGroup restructuring will affect 5% of Europe’s total direct space sector employment of 45,000 jobs. IndustriAll wants individual employees to respect European labor regulations in their individual nations, and notes that ArianeGroup, a mainly Franco-German company, has not yet created a European Works Council.

ArianeGroup, in response to the IndustriAll paper, said the works council is being formed and that its creation had to await the nomination by French and German labor unions of candidates for the new organization.

The European Union is debating a proposed budget of 16 billion euros ($18 billion) to be spent between 2021 and 2027 on specific space programs, mainly the Galileo positioning, navigation and timing network, and the Copernicus environment-monitoring program.

There are separate budgets, including a European Defence Fund, and an R&D program called Horizon Europe, that are seen as possible sources of space technology funding even if they have no dedicated budget lines.

Europe’s space industry association, ASD Eurospace, has pushed for a dedicated program, but without success:

IndustriAll now returns to the subject, calling for “a joint technology initiative (JTI) and effective working structures, similar to Clean Sky or SESAR [Single European Sky ATM Research] in aeronautics, to be created for the space sector, to boost innovation by allowing industry to take more risks in R&D.”

The position paper does not directly address the continued friction between ESA and the European Commission over who will have what power over Europe’s space policy. Nor does it refer to the synergies that would result from consolidating many individual European government space agencies into ESA or  and EU format.

But it does call for “EU policy makers to have the right to scrutinize the industrial strategy for the sector, which is strategic for Europe,” which sounds like a call for more EU oversight of ESA and individual national space agencies.