Technology Studies

Europe in the space race

Social scientist Nina Klimburg-Witjes examines the construction of the European launcher rocket Ariane 6 and asks: What role will Europe play in the new space age? Our video team met the researcher to learn more.
What is our vision as Europe? What do we want? By scrutinising the ambitious European Ariane 6 rocket programme, Nina Klimburg-Witjes from the University of Vienna draws conclusions about the political, economic and social integration of Europe. © 2023 ESA-CNES-ARIANE-SPACE-ARIANEGROUP/Optique Vidéo du CSG-P PRION

The rules for coexistence in the universe are specified in the Outer Space Treaty – a rather dusty remnant from the Cold War, when rocket construction was still a national matter. But now commercial players such as Space X & Co. are on the move in space as well – and they are putting increasing pressure on European space travel.

Ariane 6 is the name of the promising launch system that should take Europe forward in the global space race. Its predecessor, Ariane 5, seemed "too slow, insufficiently innovative, too expensive – simply no longer competitive" in comparison to the private products and was retired in 2023, explains Nina Klimburg-Witjes, social scientist and technology researcher from the University of Vienna. But rocket construction needs long planning phases. It can take between ten and 15 years until all 13 countries involved in the European Ariane programme reach an agreement, explains the space expert. Thus, they agreed on the construction of Ariane 6 already in 2014 and the first flight was initially announced for the end of 2020, but then postponed to 2024. At the same time, experts complain that the rocket will already be outdated at its maiden flight.

The permanent exhibition on spaceflight at the Vienna Museum of Technology is the ideal place for our video team to talk to Nina Klimburg-Witjes about her current research project FUTURESPACE. As International Women's Day approaches on 8 March, we also asked her for a tip especially for young female researchers: "Don't be afraid to speak your mind - your ideas count. Science is not an easy career path, so it's important to make a plan: A plan of where you want to go and how you can realistically get there." © Franz Quitt

Whether Ariane 6 will actually start this year is still unclear, and the delay is causing heated discussions on Earth. This serves as the perfect basis for the analysis by Klimburg-Witjes, who looks at European visions for space as part of her current project FUTURESPACE and investigates the role of contemporary issues such as European integration, militarisation and commercialisation, as well as climate, gender and post-colonialism in them.

Save the date: "FutureSpace Talk" #2

This new monthly online event series hosted by FUTURESPACE researchers critically examines Earth-Space relations and explores possible futures on and off the planet. FutureSpace Talk #2 takes place on Thursday, 18 April 2024 16:00 - 17:00 CET. Anna Szolucha from Jagiellonian University Kraków will present her lecture "Beyond Polarized Space: Deconstructing Myths and Reconstructing Meanings in a Multi-Cultural Examination of Space Exploration".

If you are interested in the perspective of the social sciences on space flight and technology, please register here to attend Future Space Talks #2.

Many different centrifugal forces

The debate about the European launcher is currently dominated by two positions, says the technology researcher. One position emphasises European integration and the cohesion of the federation of states, which is represented by the ESA (short for: European Space Agency) in space travel. From the critics' point of view, on the other hand, too many countries are involved in the Ariane project, which leads to internal competition and unnecessarily delays its completion. This side argues for the promotion of commercial alternatives to replace bureaucratic multinational programmes in the long term. "Many different centrifugal forces are involved, both politically and economically. This circumstance led to the situation that Europe currently has no rocket," summarises Klimburg-Witjes.

Europe's (in)dependence in space

You may ask yourself now if Europe really needs a rocket. "Independent access to space is important for our everyday life on Earth," explains the professor from the University of Vienna. We obtain data for weather forecasting, about melting glaciers or for telecommunications from outer space. But recently the universe has also become an expanded theatre of war, and countries such as Russia and America are using security-relevant satellites to influence military events on Earth. "The fact that the only rockets available for European payloads are those from America is of course a great embarrassment against this background and somehow also dangerous," says Klimburg-Witjes.

Values in the orbit

For sure, Elon Musk, in his highly centralised company SpaceX, has no issues in making quick decisions and sending satellites into orbit compared to a European network, which often disagrees. But what about fair working conditions, diversity in space, or sustainability issues? Of course, Europe has a different level of responsibility, says Klimburg-Witjes, explaining the role of European space travel. Around half of the new ESA astronauts are female and one Paralympic astronaut with a disability is part of the European squad (Here ESA presents its new astronauts). Europe also occupies a special position when it comes to climate protection: While private companies prioritise economic interests, satellite data in Europe is used for strategies to contain the climate crisis under the heading of "Green Transition".

Follow the rocket

For the FUTURESPACE project funded by the European Research Council (ERC), Klimburg-Witjes and her team want to, so to say, follow Ariane. Production is divided according to the geo-return principle in a very European manner. The countries that invest more in the rocket programme are rewarded with correspondingly larger orders for production and industry. But in principle, all European countries can "play along", even those that would have no access to space otherwise. Spain is providing the interface between the launcher and the satellite. France is developing the cryogenic engine and Germany produces the upper stage before the finished parts are shipped to French Guiana by sea. "We follow the rocket on its journey through the European countries and examine how political integration is reflected in the technological integration of the rocket," summarises the technology researcher. The ultimate aim of the project is a topography of Ariane's "Eurotrip" and the related discourses.

The colonialist side of spaceflight

The final destination on Earth is the European spaceport in French Guiana, from where the rocket should launch into space. Near the equator, the thrust of the Earth can be used most effectively – hence the location far away from the European mainland in French Guiana, an overseas department and remnant from the colonial past. But the location is also a bit symbolic. After all, "the space race is also about 'colonising' the available (or imagined) space beyond Earth."

However, the lessons from colonial history are completely ignored in the space sector, notes Klimburg-Witjes. In French Guiana, for example, people rioted against the spaceport, the noise pollution, the degradation of the local environment and the injustice that the high-tech hub brings little benefit to the domestic economy – unsuccessfully. "When wind turbines are built in Germany, the residents have to agree, but in this case the people were simply ignored. As a social scientist, it is fascinating how the historical context translates into the here and now."

The construction of Ariane reflects Europe's vision of the future in outer space as well as various forms of political and economic integration on Earth."
Nina Klimburg-Witjes

"Have a good flight!"

Before the start of the project, Klimburg-Witjes visited production sites in Bremen and Ottobrunn, and was even allowed to enter a space capsule – under the strictest hygiene regulations. Back then, she asked herself: Do the people who are building the rocket parts for years sometimes feel the urge to carve something into the walls, such as "I was here" or "have a good flight!" and thus inscribe themselves in history? The engineer who guided her through the production facility had to laugh when he heard this question – he would indeed like to do that, but he does not do it, of course. "Sometimes you have to dare to ask stupid questions in order to approach a research subject – and I dare to do so," says the friendly researcher, laughing.

“We should not leave the question of how humanity wants to live with outer space to politics and private companies alone," says the ERC grantee, "a social science analysis and voice is necessary in the space sector as well." (hm)

© Nina Klimburg-Witjes
© Nina Klimburg-Witjes
Nina Klimburg-Witjes holds a tenure track professorship at the Department of Science and Technology Studies.

Her main research areas include social science studies on space and future visions of Earth-space relations, science, technology and international relations. In 2022, she received an ERC Starting Grant for her FUTURESPACE project.