First glance

In failure or success, SpaceX is a wake up call for Europe

Europe is lagging behind in cost-effective delivery of payloads into orbit

Publishing date
26 April 2023

On 20 April, a prototype orbital rocket, Starship, built and operated by Elon Musk’s SpaceX, reached an altitude of 39 kilometres before exploding. While some in Brussels, Paris or Beijing may have experienced a degree of schadenfreude at the aborted launch test and delays it will cause, the setback has bought competitors only limited time to catch up. SpaceX’s next two test vehicles are lined up already and modifications to ground infrastructure are underway. Europe cannot afford to sit idly by and watch as SpaceX continues to innovate and improve. 

If Starship eventually becomes operational, it will be one of the largest orbital rockets ever built, able launch its payloads into orbit at a fraction of today’s costs. It is designed to be fully reusable, a feat that has so far escaped every other rocket design, including the now-retired Space Shuttle. The project is divisive, with the rocket’s design, economic viability and environmental impact criticised by some observers. The American Federal Aviation Administration suspended the Starship launch licence in the aftermath of the 20 April explosion, pending a safety and environmental review which could last months. 

Nevertheless, Europe’s industry and policymakers should start planning for a new era in space. The main constraint is cost. At the beginning of the 2010s, the cost to put one kilogramme into low earth orbit ranged from $18,000 dollars for the Space Shuttle in its last years, to $9000 for Europe’s Ariane 5 and $5000 for Russia’s Proton (not longer available to European operators because of the war in Ukraine).

SpaceX, with its solid, long-term contracts, especially with NASA, has already cut the cost substantially. Its Falcon 9 provides access for as little as $2700/kg while Falcon Heavy cuts it even more to about $1400/kg.

Starship, with a payload of up to 150 tonnes, could lower these figures dramatically. If SpaceX remains a dominant player, it would have free rein to set prices and maximise profits.

The launching market is becoming more competitive – but most new entrants are not European. Blue Origin, a private company owned by Amazon founder, Jeff Bezos, is developing a rocket called New Glenn, which it claims will be one of the most affordable launch vehicles available. The Chinese space programme is also aiming at competing on cost efficiency and at increasing the frequency of launches from mobile and sea-based launch pads. 

Regardless of SpaceX’s short-term setbacks, therefore, the European Union needs to act or be left behind. The EU has various space projects and initiatives, including the Galileo satellite navigation system and the Copernicus Earth observation programme. The Ariane 6 launcher is under development, offering an estimated $7,200/kg to get to low earth orbit – more expensive than the already existing SpaceX alternatives. While Europe’s commercial payload operators could benefit from access to a cheaper US space transport market, over-relying on the US puts the EU in a vulnerable position. 

The implications go far beyond the commercial realm. Starship could potentially guarantee exclusive space access to the US military at a fraction of the current cost, revolutionising the role the space theatre plays in defence. The new economics of the space sector mean that, even for the military, the problem is no longer simply having the ability to put a satellite into orbit, or to take a hostile satellite down. When launching a new satellite costs many times less than the anti-satellite missile that eventually takes it down, those with the cheapest and most reliable launch capabilities will enjoy a major advantage. 

Europe has no hope of matching such performance for now, and there are no quick fixes. First, when it comes to research and development, Europe should prioritise investment in reusability and cost-competitive access to space. Second, the EU must be prepared to take on more risk and increase overall public and private sector funding for space travel. Third, long-term contracts from public space agencies and the EU should be increased, with separate streams for new players and incumbents. Finally, Europe must continue to build on its strengths, including space components, instruments and satellite manufacturing.

Starship’s mishap opens a narrow window of opportunity for Europe to begin to catch up. Given the focus on strategic autonomy and economic security, it is time for the EU to reassess its goals and approaches to space.


About the authors

  • Francesco Nicoli

    Francesco Nicoli is assistant professor of political science at the Politecnico Institute of Turin. He also serves as professor of political economy at Gent University and he is affiliate fellow at the department of economics of the University of Amsterdam as well as visiting fellow at Bruegel.

    He holds a PhD in political economy, and his research focuses on the role of long-term, fundamental socioeconomic challenges (such as technological change and globalization) in shaping processes of integration at European and international level. His work has appeared on leading scientific outlets such as the Journal of European Public Policy (JEPP), the Journal of Common Market Studies (JCMS), Economic Policy, European Union Politics, the European Journal of Political Economy, Policy and Society, the European Journal of Public Health, Comparative European Politics, and others. He specializes in experimental survey research, econometric analysis, counter-factual methods, as well as a range of theory-based approaches. 

  • Giuseppe Porcaro

    Giuseppe Porcaro led the outreach activities of Bruegel, including communications, media, events, publications and hosted the Bruegel podcast series until October 2023. He was responsible for membership relations, supported the governance of the organisation, and was the board secretary. He also lead the Human Resources department and was part of the organisation's senior management. 

    Giuseppe's research interests lie with issues related to technological changes and how they affect policymaking and democracy, as well as to narratives about European futures and their policy implications in the current global geopolitical context.

    Giuseppe joined Bruegel in 2014, and was the head of communications and events until 2019. He has been Secretary-General of the European Youth Forum between 2009 and 2014, UN and Global Affairs coordinator at the Youth Forum from 2007 to 2009, and previously worked at the World Bank in Kosovo and Paris as well as the European Office of the World Organisation of the Scout Movement. Giuseppe holds a Ph.D. in Geography of Development at the University of Naples "L'Orientale". He is also a science-fiction writer, and author of a novel about Europe and the future of democracy.

    He is fluent in English, Italian, French, and Spanish.


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