Europe Tired of Playing ‘Simon Says’ with SpaceX

March 5, 2018 – 12:26 pm

Jean-Jacques Dordain. Credit: ESATOULOUSE, France — European governments spent a year grafting parts of the SpaceX rocket-manufacturing business model onto Europe’s rocket sector, and are now talking up reusable-rocket technology as a promising direction as SpaceX heads that way.

More recently, SpaceX, Google, Virgin Group and others have signaled interest in global satellite constellations to deliver Internet, and the French government has said it is interested in that business too.

It sounds like “Simon Says” with SpaceX founder Elon Musk as Simon, and some exasperated European government officials are now asking for it to stop.

Jean-Jacques Dordain, director-general of the European Space Agency, said one of his 2015 New Year’s resolutions is that “we don’t copy.”

“It’s less risky when you copy, but there is no way to be No. 1 if you copy, ” Dordain said. “You can only be second, at best. We have been first in lots of missions.”

“But they are extraordinarily good in California at revolutionizing business models,Some engineers at the French space agency, CNES, have heard so many references to the U.S. “new space” movement — the multiple private-sector initiatives in space transportation, Earth observation and telecommunications that have found investors in the United States — that they all but gag at the term.

“Yes, there was a reaction to SpaceX, and people now talk about SpaceX’s reusable stage, ” said Marc Pircher, director of CNES’s Toulouse Space Center, where more than half of CNES personnel work. “And now you hear the constellation stuff. Look, we have seen a lot of this before and much of it is not new.”

Pircher’s remarks came in an impromptu response to a question during the agency’s annual research and technology day Jan. 29 about whether CNES’s research and technology spending was learning the “new space” lessons.

Pircher said CNES’s recent agreement to work with Google on high-altitude balloon technologies follows years of CNES effort and the agency’s regular deployment of balloons for atmospheric and other research.

It does not mean, he said, that CNES necessarily believes in Google’s Loon program of balloon-delivered Internet, only that Google and CNES might learn things from each other.

CNES is an agency that in the 1970s invented the commercial space launch industry with Europe’s Ariane rocket series, which could not have survived on its government market alone. In the mid-1980s, CNES invented commercial Earth observation with the Spot optical observation program, which has since been sold to Airbus Defence and Space.


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