Space exploration has engulfed the imagination of humankind for the best part of our existence. In 1954, American astronomer, Edwin Hubble, wrote, "Equipped with his five senses, man explores the universe around him and calls the adventure science", words just as relevant today as the European Union continues to spend billions of its stretched budget on space exploration.
Galileo was only the flagship project of a much wider European space policy, and long term rewards have always been a justification for EU budget allocators. According to the European commission, the market for global satellite navigation applications will reach €240bn by the end of the decade and give Europe independence in satellite navigation, a sector that constituted seven per cent of gross domestic product in 2009. The first two Galileo satellites were launched on a Russian Soyuz rocket on 21 October 2011 from Kourou in French Guiana, and were the first of 30 planned satellites, along with a series of ground control centres and sensor stations, that make up the EU's Galileo satellite navigation system.
"Equipped with his five senses, man explores the universe around him and calls the adventure science"
The commission's website says that independent studies show the system will contribute nearly €90bn to Europe's economy in its first 20 years. The fact that Russia and China are both developing their own systems to rival the US's global positioning system only provides European leaders with an added incentive. However, critics have condemned such luxurious spending on space activities, especially at a time of such instability in the eurozone. Combined with the sovereign debt crisis, rising unemployment and EU-wide austerity measures, spending billions on space infrastructure is seen by many as frivolous.
The European space agency (ESA) is an independent body, but receives 20 per cent of its funding directly from the EU budget, which amounted to €4bn in 2011. Its stated mission is to shape Europe's space capability and ensure that investment delivers benefits directly to citizens. But in times of economic uncertainty, is the EU's space project worth the €7bn allocated until 2020?
Under director-general Jean-Jacques Dordain, the ESA and its 2200 direct employees develop satellite technologies and promote the European space industry as well as coordinate the agency's work with other world space organisations. The signing of the Lisbon treaty provided the EU with a legal basis to develop a coherent space policy. The commission's reasons for prioritising space policy are the provision of services crucial to modern life, the economic benefits, and a European independence in space infrastructure.
Alongside Galileo, a second large-scale project is underway, called global monitoring for environment and security (GMES). Using data collected by satellites, as well as earth-based measuring tools, GMES is intended to help develop understanding of climate change through the accurate observation of the state of oceans or the chemical composition of the atmosphere. It will also have security applications, such as border surveillance. According to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, the global market for commercial Earth observation data could rise to €2.4bn by 2017.
"Space activities create high-skilled jobs, innovation, new commercial opportunities, and improve citizens' wellbeing and security" - Antonio Tajani
Early in 2011, the commission published a communication outlining its plans to take advantage of the EU's new mandate to develop a space policy. As well as carrying out the Galileo and GMES projects, they include protecting space infrastructures against space debris, solar radiation and asteroids by setting-up a European space situation awareness system which could save €332bn in costs from collisions. It also wants to look at identifying opportunities for space exploration, partly through greater participation of member states in international space station work. The plans outline an ambition to work still more closely with the ESA to develop industrial space policy and to support research and development which will boost Europe's independence in the sector. Furthermore, it is looking at how space technology can be best exploited for security and defence capabilities.
"Space is strategic for Europe's independence, job creation and competitiveness. Space activities create high-skilled jobs, innovation, new commercial opportunities, and improve citizens' wellbeing and security", said Antonio Tajani, European commission vice-president for industry and entrepreneurship, who is also responsible for space policy.
Meanwhile, the European space manufacturing industry is worth €5.4bn per year and employs a highly qualified workforce of more than 31,000. The 11 major satellite operators in Europe run 153 communication satellites, represent 6000 employees and have a €6bn annual turnover, producing a positive downstream effect on 30,000 employees. Needless to say, that although spending on space research and technologies can sometimes seem like a frivolous luxury, especially in times of economic uncertainty, the benefits have a significant trickle-down effect that has a positive effect on the European economy, both in the medium to long term.