KOUROU, French Guiana—In June, when President Donald Trump told his military leaders to create a new branch of the military dedicated to space, the words rippled across the US military and political landscape. Soon after, the generals said they would work to comply with the order. At rallies, Trump’s crowds began to chant, “Space Force! Space Force!”
But chatter about America’s desire to dominate space did not stop there. Trump’s declaration reached even this remote coast of South America, where the Amazon River muddies pristine Atlantic waters and jungle dominates the landscape.
Last Friday morning, Alain Charmeau met with a handful of reporters at the Hotel des Roches in Kourou, the small town outside the European Space Agency’s spaceport near the equator. As the head of the Paris-based Ariane Group, Charmeau oversees Europe’s family of launch vehicles, including the Ariane 5 rocket. During the discussion, Charmeau addressed a number of different topics, including the recent speech where Trump directed his generals to separate current responsibilities for military spaceflight from the US Air Force.
Europe evidently heard these words from its long-time ally loudly and clearly. “Mr. Trump himself says they invest in space for full dominance,” Charmeau said. “He wants to have a sixth army which will be the space army. So what is the position of Europe? Do we invest in space for full dominance? Do we invest just to exist? Do we want to resist the US dominance?”
Charmeau and other aerospace officials track the US budget for space closely. The US Department of Defense spends about $12.5 billion a year on unclassified space-related activities, from launching satellites to tracking orbital debris. (This does not include spy operations or clandestine military activities in space). NASA, the civil space agency, has a budget of $19 billion. By contrast, the European Space Agency operates with an annual budget of about $6 billion for comparable activities.
This smaller budget forces Europe to stand back, and let the United States take the lead in human spaceflight. But the member states are nonetheless fiercely proud of their launch program, and other activities in space, as a unifying activity for the continent. “Europe also has other interests,” Charmeau said. “We want to create cooperation between countries. Ariane is a huge success from that standpoint.”
The European Space Agency receives funding from the European Union as well as contributions from 22 member states. Earlier this month, the European Union commission said it will significantly raise payments to the space agency over a six-year period—2021 to 2026—from $13 billion to nearly $19 billion. These extra funds will go primarily to a global navigation system program called Galileo, an Earth observation program named Copernicus, and space situational awareness activities.
Additionally, the president of France, Emmanuel Macron, and Germany’s leader Angela Merkel both recently announced their full support for final development of the Ariane 6 rocket. This rocket, Europe’s next-generation booster, is designed to meet the needs of its member states as well as compete with companies such as SpaceX for commercial launches.
Europe does not seek dominance
The European Space Agency has remained a steadfast partner with NASA on the International Space Station for nearly two decades. But it has never worked solely with the United States on robotic exploration and will not do so in the future for human activities. Already, three of its astronauts have begun to learn Chinese, and at least one or two of these are likely fly to a new station that China intends to build in the early 2020s.
Trump’s rhetoric, therefore, appears to have significantly increased the resolve of Europe to have independent rockets to reach space, its own GPS-like system, and its own satellites.
“The position of the US is helping Europe to strengthen its position,” Charmeau said. “Again, Europe is not going to say, ‘I want to dominate the space world.’ Europe is looking for other things. Europe wants access to space. Europe wants to have their own infrastructure in space, with Galileo and Copernicus. We seek cooperation.”