FutureSpace: European Integration and the Future of Europe´s Presence in Outer Space

By: Matúš Babják, Kai Strycker, Philipp Kürten


The impact of space infrastructure on societal, economic, political, and security development has been steadily progressing, even significantly accelerating in recent years, leading to a new era of increased global competition that has frequently been called a “new space race”. This competition is driven by several noteworthy factors. Firstly, rising investments from both the public and private sectors have enabled significant technological advancements in areas such as satellite communication, earth and space observation, and space exploration. Additionally, the profit-driven vision of vast economic opportunities by exploiting the material resources of outer space and the desire of states to assert their position in the international political arena by demonstrating technological prowess in space also contributed to the current situation.

In general, every state-run institution, intergovernmental body, and private entity engaged in the space race follows a unique strategy tailored to its character, priorities, and capabilities. The European Space Agency (ESA), tasked with fulfilling the objectives of its member states, is no exception. Indeed, it also has to adapt to the dynamically changing landscape of the space sector.

A fitting example of this phenomenon is the European Ariane program – the world’s first commercial launch service inaugurated in 1979. Apart from guaranteeing European countries access to outer space and the capacity to launch European satellites independently, Ariane is also a symbol of political, technological, and economic integration among European countries.

While the Ariane family of rockets dominated the commercial launch service market for decades, its market share has gradually declined. To stabilize Ariane’s market position, the European Space Agency faces a variety of challenges that need addressing.

Firstly, the cost-effectiveness of its operation and the customary principle of geo-return must be considered. Originally, the commercial success of the Ariane program was not prioritized. Its primary goal was to promote technological integration among European countries by sharing the costs associated with the development and manufacture of a rocket. As a result of this collective structure, the development, design, and manufacturing of rocket parts were distributed among member states, regardless of the complications this created. While this policy aimed to ensure equitable distribution of industry contracts, it led to perceptions of excessive costs and bureaucratic complexities. Over time, policymakers realized that ESA’s priorities and business strategy needed transformation to match the changing character of the global market and increase Ariane’s competitiveness. However, modifications of such an entrenched governance framework are complex and time-consuming to achieve.

Unfortunately, Europe’s inability to deviate from this principle negatively affected the latest rocket iteration – Ariane 6. Originally planned to launch at the end of 2020, its first launch has been deferred due to manufacturing and administrative complications. Finally, ESA set the date for the maiden flight to be in June or July 2024. Even if the launch were to succeed, Ariane 6 has faced challenges since its beginning in 2014. Its operational costs could not be reduced by 50% compared to Ariane 5 as was initially promised and the extensive delay has left Europe temporarily without its own launcher after the termination of the Ariane 5 program in July 2023 and technical difficulties with the Vega rocket, leading to the unfortunate situation that Europe was dependent on a competing American private company owned by controversial businessman Elon Musk for its launching needs.

Furthermore, when discussing the future of the Ariane program, external factors affecting it must also be considered. Most notably, the commercialization of the space sector and the creation of the so-called “NewSpace” community of private space companies have intensified competition. Currently, Ariane’s toughest business rival is the family of Falcon launch vehicles introduced to the market by the American aerospace company SpaceX. Ironically, the European space program now relies on competing technology from Elon Musk´s company. 

This unprecedented crisis has not only been a technological and financial issue but has also shed a negative light on the European space-faring coalition. A question arises as to how to address this deprivation. We identify two key polarizing narratives. The first suggests promoting deepening unification of all participating European entities with an emphasis on commitment to the ESA-organized Ariane program. The second, more controversial narrative accentuates the need for the disintegration of today’s European launcher program in favor of a more flexible system. (Klimburg-Witjes, 2023) Here arises a dilemma: do European space-faring nations striving for market and technological advancement of Ariane want to solve this challenge in a more interdependent or divided environment? In both scenarios, the emerging NewSpace ecosystem is reshaping the dynamics of space politics in Europe, adding further complexity to the relationships among national, international, and supranational institutions.

Considering the present setting within the European political environment, it is crucial to emphasize how the evolution of the space sector modifies and is modified by its level of integration. In other words, the future of European activity in space is framed by European priorities and values, while European priorities and values are framed by European space infrastructure and policy, creating an exciting and research-worthy symbiosis. Indeed, it is this interconnectedness of imaginative, material, and political dimensions of European space futures, along with their complex and critical entanglements, that shapes the approach of the FutureSpace research project. Three SGAC members—Matúš Babják (NPoC for Slovakia), Kai Strycker, and Philipp Kürten (SGAC members, Germany)—have been actively participating in this 5-year investigation based at the Department of Science and Technology Studies (STS) at the University of Vienna and financially supported by a Starting Grant of the European Research Council (ERC). They have been collaborating with the project leader, Assist. Prof. Nina Klimburg-Witjes, and post-doctoral researcher Joseph Popper.

Our joint research aims to explore the intricate interplay between present-day politics, existing industrial infrastructure and future visions of outer space. The project delves into diverse and evolving perspectives on the future of European space endeavors, particularly as they manifest in discussions surrounding the European Ariane launcher—a pivotal component of the European space enterprise. By following the trajectory of the rocket across construction sites, policy forums, foresight departments, and industry expos, the FutureSpace team seeks to adopt a balanced approach to both the tangible and conceptual aspects of future-building through Ariane’s development.

For the FutureSpace project, this presents a unique opportunity to examine how the construction of Ariane reflects anticipated trajectories of European integration, underlying values, and the envisioned role of Europe in space exploration. Through a multi-sited ethnographic approach, the project aims to gain a nuanced understanding of how European space futures are shaped within the context of specific techno-political endeavors.

This research represents a pioneering effort in linking the development of the rocket and the future scenarios it evokes to governance structures, engineering methodologies, and value constellations inherent in multinational infrastructure projects. In doing so, the European Research Council´s project FutureSpace seeks to contribute to the field of science and technology studies, infrastructure analysis, and the social sciences of outer space, fostering innovative and pertinent intersections between these domains.

To learn more about the research of the FutureSpace project, we encourage you to explore our project website at futurespace-project.eu.


Full article: A Rocket to Protect? Sociotechnical Imaginaries of Strategic Autonomy in Controversies About the European Rocket Program (tandfonline.com)