Europe’s Space Champions Need More Orders at Home to Beat Musk

(Bloomberg) -- Europe’s space champions are urging buyers at home to favor their technology over that of foreign rivals, as competition intensifies from the likes of Elon Musk’s Space X.

As executives from the space industry meet in Paris this week for the World Satellite Business conference, French satellite operator Arianespace is calling on Europe to translate its space sovereignty ambitions into more public orders. Startups want their share too, with Paris-based propulsion company ExoTrail and satellite firm Kineis raising money from local investors.

“We need more public orders for the new generation Ariane 6 rocket-launcher,” Arianespace Chief Executive Officer Stephane Israel said Monday on the sidelines of a news conference in Paris. “We’re asking Europe to do what’s done elsewhere --in the U.S., China, Russia -- when handing contracts.”

The U.S.’s space budget has fueled the development of companies like Musk’s Space Exploration Technologies Corp., and Europe should take a leaf from that, Israel said.

Heavy rocket-launcher Ariane 6, which is set to start operating in 2020, only has three firm orders from European public customers, which isn’t much to keep it in the race against Musk’s Falcon rockets, as well as startups such as Blue Origin, backed by the deep pockets Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. Arianespace, a branch of Arianegroup in which European planemaker Airbus SE and French aerospace manufacturer Safran SA own stakes, got its first commercial contract from satellite-operator Eutelsat Communications SA this week.

Among the contracts that Arianespace is trying to nail down are a scientific mission to Jupiter for ESA, the European Space Agency. And key talks are ongoing with Germany’s intelligence services BND to send their Georg satellites into space. Germany earmarked 400 million euros to fund the construction of up to three optical government reconnaissance satellites, German newspapers reported last year

‘Buy European’

Local suppliers say they’re part of the answer to Europe’s need for aerospace sovereignty. France has expressed mounting concern about the creeping militarization of the Earth’s outer atmosphere, and the need to add satellite-surveillance capabilities, as President Emmanuel Macron urged European counterparts to maintain an autonomous access to space.

Still, the sums of money the country spends, along with its European allies, to upgrade satellites and space technology and to launch scientific or government missions are trifling compared with outlay by the U.S. and China. The EU plans to earmark 16 billion euros ($19 billion) in its 2021-2027 budget for space, with most going to the military and civilian satellite navigation system Galileo. France plans to spend 2 billion euros next year for its space programs.

In contrast, NASA has been budgeted over $19 billion over the coming fiscal year.

"There’s definitely interest from European leaders to back strategic industries like space and finance them,” said David Henri, CEO and co-founder of ExoTrail, which last week raised 3.5 million euros to develop miniaturized electric propellers. “One way to do it is by helping develop new technology, but we’d like to also see more encouragement for Europe to buy European equipment including propellers.”

Another startup called Kineis, which wants to launch a constellation of nano-satellites, says awareness is growing in Europe about supporting the emergence of a local space entrepreneurship ecosystem. It’s seeking about 100 million euros in financing from private and public backers by the end of the year, CEO Alexandre Tisserant said.

Still, Europe’s complexity and the diversity in member states are acting as impediments to making good on its ambitions, Arianespace’s Israel said. His company is in talks for seven institutional launches for the new rocket but only three so far have been formalized -- two global-positioning for EU’s Galileo system and one military satellite for France. The program needs 11 launches every year to be viable, he said.

“We need to be on equal footing,” Israel said. “Our rivals are growing on strong public orders and that’s giving them an edge.”

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.