Can the UK and Orbex Space Beat Esa and German Rockets in a New Space Race?

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( — June 26, 2021) — 

The UK vs Germany Competition in the European Space: Who Will Prevail?

The 21st-century space race is steadily gaining momentum. For the first time in history, launching spacecraft is more about commerce than about politics. And while the US with its operators traditionally remains the launch leader, Europe has started to catch up. 

Even after Brexit, the UK remains an ESA member entitled to its funds. Besides, the UK is finalizing another stage of its spaceport construction initiative and funding local launch operators like Orbex Space. In the meantime, ESA already has its operational rockets, along with some promising German startups like Rocket Factory Augsburg. So the question is — will the UK beat Germany and ESA in this new space competition?

European Launch Market Now: The Old Meets the New

The ESA has already declared its intention to commercialize the space industry. Even though Europe does not have any local launchpads, ESA’s Vega and Ariane rockets successfully lift off from a spaceport in French Guiana. Both are heavyweight carriers that may soon become commercially unviable. Still, it may take some time before these rockets are decommissioned because, reportedly, both Ariane 6 and Vega-C recently contracted large orders from international clients.

Still, one of the ESA’s most promising startups is German Rocket Factory Augsburg. ESA has already contracted RFA to study the future of space transportation. According to ESA representatives, this study does not imply any drastic changes. Its goal is to analyze the future of European rockets and come up with a reasonable prediction about the space transportation niche for the next decades. 

On the other hand, Rocket Factory Augsburg is not an analytical but a rocket-making company. It’s RFAOne could become one of the first new-generation rockets in Europe as its launch cost will be lower than heavyweight Vega and Ariane. But, of course, the company will have to finish the development first. 

British Rocket Developers

Besides supporting local rocket makers like Orbex Space and Skyrora, the UK is actively investing in its spaceport construction. Both companies plan to launch from vertical spaceports in Scotland — hopefully, as soon as next year. 

Besides the support from the UK Space Agency, ambitious startups are entitled to ESA’s funds. Recently, ESA invested a total of $12.35 million into these two companies as part of its Boost! initiative. The grant is supposed to speed up Orbex Space and Skyrora’s microlauncher development. Here, it looks like Skyrora will beat Orbex in this race because the company already carried out a successful firing test, while Orbex Prime rocket is not anywhere near testing. 

Does European Space Have a Place for the UK?

Given the growing tension between the UK and German rocket makers, it is not quite clear why ESA keeps allocating grants to British companies. Perhaps, one of the simplest explanations is that the ESA is targeting future UK spaceports. Once commissioned, they will become the first launchpads in Europe. 

Besides, at least part of the funding granted to the UK companies will find its way into European pockets. Even though Orbex Space is headquartered in Scotland, the startup originates from Denmark. At the moment, Orbex has additional offices in Munich and Copenhagen. More importantly, part of the Boost! funding will go to Spanish Elecnor Deimos — an innovative company that will be designing tech for Orbex’s Prime rocket. 

Right now, the post-Brexit relationship between the UK and ESA seems relatively unaffected. Both the UKSA and ESA keep funding promising space projects in Great Britain and Europe. However, the UKSA’s investment in ESA projects is way more significant. In contrast to that, ESA seems to be under-funding UK space projects — especially if we consider that part of the funding to Orbex Space goes back to European space entities. 

So, if the UK is truly determined to become the first space-faring nation in Europe, it may need to reconsider the sums of investment allocated to international companies. While there is nothing wrong with international collaboration and a bit of productive competition, the focus should be on developing its own space industry.