To Sicily and beyond: ESA, partners debate future of space transportation

Enabling & Support

07/11/2022
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How can Europe exploit its technical, industrial and financial strengths to ensure it remains a leader in space transportation in the 2030s and beyond? How can ESA, Europe’s national space agencies and institutions, and both established and new industrial partners better co-ordinate their efforts to meet global competition that demands innovation and cost-reduction?

These were just a few of the questions discussed during an ESA-hosted roundtable conference held on 27-28 June in Palermo, Sicily. The event, called “Shared Vision for the Future of Space Transportation in Europe”, saw more than 100 representatives of Europe’s space sector discuss the technical and political challenges shaping the space transportation market.

Giorgio Tumino, ESA’s Chief Technical Advisor for Space Transportation, has led a year-long effort to identify features of a future European space transportation infrastructure capable of matching the intense technical and commercial competition coming from the USA, China, Russia and India.

The Palermo roundtable meeting was held to begin fleshing out this “Vision 2030+” of a European space sector organized to meet the technical and market demands of the coming decades. Said Tumino: “The event was extremely fruitful. It underlined the need to consolidate a European vision that brings together all actors.”

Several themes shaped the discussion, which reflected the differing needs of established space industry players and their start-up competitors. One theme was the role of ESA; Should it lead the definition and product development of European institutional launchers, or should it support industry’s entrepreneurial efforts to define and develop products?

Participants underlined that ESA should act as an “anchor customer”; that is, to shift its focus towards services. But while some favor such a shift away from buying specific technologies or creating products, others want ESA to continue to play a more product-focused role. That is, to use its technical and financial strength technologies to actively “de-risk” which are expected to become critical enablers of institutional requirements but which cannot enter the market quickly.

General Luigi De Leverano, military adviser to Italian prime minister Mario Draghi, addresses delegates; also pictured are ASI president Giorgio Saccoccia, Daniel Neuenschwander and Giorgio Tumino

Another concern focused on the limited size of the European launch market. Some participants fear too much intra-European competition risks impoverishing the installed infrastructure and expertise which has been built up over by agencies and industry.

Here, one theme arising from the Palermo meeting was that ESA should trigger more commercial investment by initiating “competitive procurements” in new activities.

This theme of balancing co-operation and competition characterised discussion of one possible strategy, which is to identify common technology “building blocks”. This would see commonly available technologies shared across many applications to generate the proposal of scale which keep costs down in larger institutional markets.

Palermo revealed that prime contractors and legacy companies support this approach, agreeing that sharing technologies would build volume and enhance international competitiveness. Newer companies, however, expressed concern that this approach risked creating monopolies; They prefer to mimic the so-called “spin-in” tactic of borrowing technologies that have been developed by larger industries, such as automotive.

Broadly, participants agreed that building blocks were not needed for lighter sub-systems, where vertical integration fosters competition and stimulates innovation.

future STS concepts

The topic of European competence in human space exploration was widely discussed. Here, participants saw a necessity in mastering the technologies that enable the sustainability of human life in very difficult conditions.

Some participants observed that the lead time in developing human spaceflight capabilities means decisions about its pursuit need to be taken now.

The notion that European competence in cargo delivery was a fair trade for astronaut transport was seen as a first but not sufficient step for Europe. And, noted participants, the inspirational impact of the human spaceflight effort would be far greater if the first European astronauts to travel to the Moon were to fly from Europe’s Spaceport with a European transportation system.

One point of agreement was that Europe offers very high-quality space transportation services. Europe, it was noted, delivers outstanding launch services from its spaceport in French Guiana, with many international customers coming back repeatedly owing to quality and reliability.

Daniel Neuenschwander, ESA’s Director of Space Transportation, called the event in Palermo a key milestone: “We have an ambitious transformation plan and the Spirit of Palermo will support that. Europe is building on a solid foundation, technically and commercially, and Europe is adapting to a fast-changing space market, so it’s encouraged to see such intense engagement – and readiness to accelerate.

“Working together is the European way and that is our greatest strength.”

Giorgio Tumino, Daniel Neuenschwander and Palermo mayor Roberto Lagalla discuss events at the space transportation roundtable, 27-28 June 2022

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