Norbert Barthle, Germany’s new parliamentary state secretary for aerospace at the Federal Ministry of Transport and Digital Infrastructure, said investment in space autonomy for Europe needs to be a high priority given the policy statements from U.S. President Donald Trump. Credit: Screenshot from Arianespace video.
PARIS — The Jan. 28 launch of Europe’s first SmallGEO telecommunications satellite platform on the first geostationary-transfer-orbit mission by the Europeanized Russian Soyuz rocket offered further proof that Donal Trump has achieved what many thought impossible:
He has forced German government and industry space officials to speak like Frenchmen.
For decades the French have devoted their energies on behalf of greater European space autonomy, starting with the Ariane line of heavy-lift rockets and continuing with the French-led move to operate the medium-class Russian Soyuz from Europe’s Guiana Space Center, on French territory in South America.
At the time, French government officials said if Europe didn’t adopt Soyuz, Boeing or some other U.S. company would do so. Whether this was ever credible is beside the point: The argument worked, and the Jan. 28 launch was the 16th mission — all successes — of Soyuz from the European spaceport.
It was France again that pushed for Europe’s Galileo positioning, navigation and timing network, and France that was the last to accept a U.S.-European agreement that kept Galileo’s secure, government-only PRS frequencies away from the GPS’s military code.
The French argument had been that overlaying PRS on the same spectrum used by the GPS M-code — which would have been perfectly legal — would mean the U.S. could never employ navigation warfare techniques against Galileo without also knocking out M-code service to U.S. military forces.
Past German support for U.S., not just European, space efforts
Throughout all this, Germany was viewed in France as too willing to embrace the trans-Atlantic alliance, and too willing to enter space partnerships with the United States.
Perhaps the most striking example was in 1995, when French space agency employees publicly demonstrated outside a European Space Agency ministerial council meeting in Toulouse, France, to urge the French government to stay out of the International Space Agency.
Their reasoning: The space station was a U.S. trap intended to drain European resources from space-autonomy projects like telecommunications satellites.
Germany was fully behind the space station and a French departure would have put the Franco-German space partnership — and German support for the Ariane 5 rocket — in jeopardy.
In the years since, German government officials have often said that in a globalized world, space autonomy loses its meaning. What is more, they said, launch vehicles had become commoditized and thus undeserving of massive European investment.
Trump’s multiple statements on the European Union, NATO, Brexit and other topics has shut down that line of reasoning in Europe, as was clear Jan. 23-24 at a space policy conference in Brussels.
During the conference, speaker after speaker, government and industry, endorsed greater space autonomy, with many pointing to the new U.S. administration as the biggest new motivator.
Picking up bad vibrations
If more testimony were needed, it came after the Jan. 28 Soyuz launch, when Norbert Barthle, Germany’s new parliamentary state secretary for aerospace at the Federal Ministry of Transport and Digital Infrastructure, addressed those in attendance.
“If we recognize the vibrations the new U.S. government sends over the ocean to us — and maybe it’s not only vibration — I think it’s necessary, more than ever before, that we in Europe have our own capacity and our own competence to enter space, to launch satellites and to put together all the European competence you can find for a successful mission,” Barthle said.
What a contrast to the remarks of European Space Agency Director-General Jan Woerner, who spoke just before Barthle and focused on the strength of Europe’s space cooperation with Russia.
“We know it’s a Russian launcher,” Woerner said of the Europeanized Soyuz. He said Igor Komarov, head of Russia’s Roscosmos space agency, had called after the launch to offer congratulations.
“We can cooperate even in difficult political situations,” Woerner said of the common programs with Russia. “We need this bridge.”
The trans-Atlantic bridge, on the other hand, needs maintenance work.