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23rd Feb 2019

EU to reveal space strategy, but leave exploring to the ESA

  • The International Space Station: Frank De Winne was the first European to lead the ISS in 2009 (Photo: European Space Agency)

The first European to command the International Space Station made the case on Friday (14 October) that Europe should continue to invest in space.

"People often think that space comes at high cost. This is really not true. Space is not a cost for the European citizen, it is an investment," said Belgian astronaut Frank De Winne, during the opening ceremony of an exhibit at the European Space Expo, in Brussels.

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  • De Winne: 'I think it's good that the European Commission today focuses on the services directly benefiting the citizen.' (Photo: Peter Teffer)

De Winne, head of the European Astronaut Centre in Cologne, said investing in space is an investment in humanity.

"I flew to space. I was very lucky to see our Earth from above. If you see our planet from above, you see that there are no borders. They do not exist in reality," said De Winne.

Speaking to EUobserver, De Winne explored his thoughts on humanity and the role of the European Union in the future of space exploration.

"Up there, we are all citizens of the world," said De Winne. However, he added that "of course" that does not erase cultural differences.

"Just because there are no borders, that doesn't mean that you don't have an affiliation. Even if you live in a small country like Belgium, I'm still born in Ghent, so I feel affiliated with Ghent. I'm from Flanders, so I feel affiliated with Flanders."

"I'm a Belgian guy, but I'm also European, and also a citizen of the world."

And a popular citizen to boot, as became clear after his speech, when he was thronged by those who wanted a picture with him.

De Winne has worked with the European Space Agency (ESA) - a body separate to the European Union, although with which it shares many members - since being selected as a candidate in 1998.

Brexit, problems up there

While the EU has supranational elements, the ESA is purely intergovernmental.

That means that while the United Kingdom may leave the EU, it can remain part of ESA.

According to De Winne, the Brits have already made it "very clear" that they want to stay in the ESA, and that "they want the ESA to remain a strong European space agency".

But, he also added, Brexit will have an impact.

"Today, the pound has lost value compared to the euro. As we are doing most of our programmes in euros in the European Space Agency, this could be a loss of purchasing power."

"We will have to look how things unfold, and try to make the best of it," he added.

A space strategy for Europe

De Winne spoke after European Commissioner Maros Sefcovic, who announced a new European space strategy is due before the end of the year, some sources suggesting it could be as soon as October's end.

Establishing "a coherent and stable regulatory framework for the service and manufacturing of space applications in Europe and exploiting the internal market and job-creating potential of space", are just one part of Jean-Claude Junker's grand plans.

Maros Sefcovic with Frank De Winne: "I am sure that Mars would be probably more thrilling" (Photo: Peter Teffer)

However, the EU does not intend to compete with ESA in the field of space exploration, this despite Sefcovic quoting Star Trek, calling space: the "final frontier".

The ESA is "better equipped for that", the Slovak commissioner told EUobserver on Friday.

"What we are responsible for is to create the appropriate framework."

"We are one of their major clients because of our satellite launches, and we have good working relations, so I'm sure we can really support each other," Sefcovic said.

The strategy paper is "written by us, but we consulted very closely with them", he added.

Astronaut De Winne hopes that the document acknowledges the significance of the space sector.

"It's important for humanity, it's important for the European citizen. What I also hope to read is that within Europe we will all work together to get the maximum benefits out of space, be it science, be it knowledge, be it exploration, be it services, be it Galileo, be it Copernicus."

Galileo is the EU's navigation programme, while Copernicus is the EU's Earth observation programme.

"I think it's good that the European Commission today focuses on the services directly benefiting the citizen. This is what the European Union is about," said De Winne.

Benefiting citizens is also the main goal behind the idea for a Moon village, coined last year by ESA boss Johann-Dietrich Woerner.

"It's not the idea to go there and build a village and then just have a little community there that lives there. No; how can we bring the benefits of the Moon and exploration on the Moon back to the citizens here on Earth?," said De Winne.

The Moon or Mars?

De Winne also noted that discussions about future space exploration are often presented as choices: Mars or Moon, robotic or human.

"This is not necessary at all. We understand that if we want to go to Mars, probably we have to pass via the Moon again."

EUobserver posed the question to EU commissioner Sefcovic: the Moon or Mars?

"If I would have to choose, I am sure that Mars would be probably more thrilling," said Sefcovic.

"But I think for what I could get permission from my wife, it would probably be the Moon because there is a bigger chance that I would come back!"

The European Space Expo is free to visit on Brussels' Place de la Monnaie, until 25 October 2016

Brexit could affect UK space industry

If UK nationals vote to leave the EU, there would be little effect on the country's European cooperation on space activities. But British companies may lose business opportunities.

EU's new strategy shuns space exploration

The commission wants to focus on the commercial potential of space rather than the educational or scientific benefits, much to the annoyance of some MEPs.

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