Europes space pioneers struggle to lift off
Robert Boehme has an idea — making moon missions “boring” by doing for lunar transport what the humble container did for the shipping industry, slashing costs through standardization.
Such tech is crucial for any future plan for a lunar base, or for using the moon as a stopover for missions deeper into the cosmos, but it also has practical value: allowing researchers and scientists to place probes and other gear on the moon. Boehmes plan is for a lunar vehicle dubbed Alina that would be able to shift up to 300 kilograms, or two rovers, to the moons surface.
Its just one of Europes nascent private space ventures untethered to government programs.
But getting from the drawing board to a finished lander has proved difficult for Boehme.
“What went really well is developing the technology, getting sponsors,” said the 33-year-old German. “However, one thing did not work, and thats the investment side.”
For PTS, moving on from prize money and research grants to commercial investment proved tough — a typical story for such companies.
Unlike U.S. billionaires Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos, who are financing their own space programs, Boehme, a former government cybersecurity specialist-turned-space entrepreneur, isnt rich. In fact, his company was recently declared insolvent.
One reason for his trouble is that its much harder for private companies to raise money in Europe, and to get the myriad of competing European governments and space agencies to finance small and innovative space companies.
With Alina, Boehme is promising a module that can use its own propulsion system to get from Earth orbit to the lunar surface. His company, PTS, is offering a price of €700,000 per kilogram for the first mission later this decade.
He started PT Scientists (PT standing for part-time) out of university labs in the late 2000s, in response to a Google competition aimed at spurring affordable lunar missions. His full-time job was exploring vulnerabilities in the German governments encrypted mobile phone system.
NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine (left) and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk talk to reporters at SpaceX Headquarters on October 10, 2019 in Hawthorne, California | David McNew/Getty Images
Neither PTS nor any of the other companies taking part in the Google X-Prize contest managed to get to the moon and claim the $20 million reward, and he has since rebranded the venture Planetary Transportation Systems, with a staff of 60 based in an industrial complex not far from the communist-era Avenue of the Cosmonauts in old East Berlin.
For PTS, moving on from prize money and research grants to commercial investment proved tough — a typical story for such companies. “Its a real European problem,” said Boehme of the absence of hard capital, adding that “funders will put far less into [European] companies than those in Silicon Valley or Israel.”
What effectively killed any investor buzz around PTS was NASAs move in late 2018 to offer $2.6 billion to companies willing to participate in its Artemis moon program through the 2020s. The aim of the spending splurge, NASAs administrator Jim Bridenstine said at the time, was to create a “robust marketplace” to encourage innovation.
“The moment they announced this, all the investment negotiations we had were basically dead in the water,” said Boehme. Potential backers told him to pack up, take his best staff and set up shop in the U.S.
Instead, he filed for insolvency before teaming up with Zeitfracht Group, a German firm, in the second half of 2019. A recent deal with U.S.-based Masten Space Systems could allow PTS some access to future NASA contracts, and Boehme is still promising to launch the first payload in the early 2020s aboard the Europe-made Ariane 6 launcher. His company markets its mission as a “100 percent European” moon service.
“China and the U.S. make decisions much quicker” — Norwegian engineer Ane Aanesland
Failure to launch
Europes problem isnt just with investment, but also in the agility of public institutions to effectively promote the industry, said Ane Aanesland, a Norwegian engineer who founded ThrustMe in Paris in 2014, offering technologies to move around the ever-growing number of small satellites in orbit. That helps to limit the risk of collisions and to position new satellite constellations.
While NASA makes its budgetary decisions every year, and includes private companies in its strategies, the Paris-based European Space Agency, a non-EU institution, approves its comparatively modest spending once every three years after tortuous project-by-project haggling among its 22 member countries.
The EU, meanwhile, has a seven-year budget cycle.
“China and the U.S. make decisions much quicker,” Aanesland said, adding that its difficult dealing with ESA because the agency wants to make decisions rather than just purchase services as a client, further slowing down innovation.
Although ThrustMe secured research funding and EU cash to build a team of 20 working on its thruster propulsion systems, when she wanted to get ThrustMes technology into orbit in 2019, Aanesland did so with a Chinese partner rather than waiting on Europeans to agree. “From signing the contract, it took us eight months to be in space,” she said, a rapid pace compared with what she believes would have happened if she had waited for approval closer to home.
Europe is a tough environment for small companies. Trying to nab contracts through national space agencies such as Frances CNES means fighting the countrys aerospace titans like Airbus or Thales Alenia Space. ESAs procurement rules mean countries get back contracts related to their total buy-in — because France and Germany stumped up more than 40 percent of the overall agency budget between them, big companies can play politics in trying to win bids.
Technicians work on the Rosalind Franklin ExoMars rover at an Airbus facility in Stevenage, England on February 7, 2019 | Ben Stansall/AFP via Getty Images
“The problem we have in Europe is that its still very geopolitical,” said Aanesland. “For traditional space countries, it is a problem for the startups because the cake is already split and there is no piece left.”
Speaking from Paris, she said her next step is raising €5 million to €10 million to expand her company, one of many European contenders in the so-called new space industry, an umbrella term for private initiatives not part of government programs. In the U.S., Musks SpaceX and Bezos Blue Origin have helped make the term widely known.
However, despite a lower-profile space industry, working in Europe does have advantages — from tech hubs springing up around the CRead More – Source