Greetings all fellow space nerds and Kerbonauts,
I am a passionate lover of all space related topics. From Astronomy of our local group of stars, until deep space Cosmology, since I was a kid I dreamed of participating in this amazing field of science. For that regard, I have dived into an Engineering career, specifically in electronics, having one year ago relocated myself to Belgium to work for a French aerospace company. Finally achieving my long-lasting goal, I feel now professionally fulfilled.
But... (there is always a but...) Since now I have been integrated in the European space industry, instead of just being a spectator from the outside, I have come to understand a few issues with it.
I am currently a Power Electronics design engineer and my responsibilities are to design analog and power electronic circuits to be used in space. For those not familiar with electronic design for space I can summarize it in four main activities:
1) Conceptualize a circuit given a certain set of specifications (not space specific);
2) Perform all kinds of analysis (Failure Mode and Effects Analysis, Part Stress Analysis, Reliability Analysis, Worst Case Analysis, Corner Analysis, and the list goes on and on) (space specific)
3) Writing a plethora documentation that justifies every design decision taken (space specific)
4) Build, test and qualify your electronic module (not space specific)
You probably begin to imagine that 2) and 3) takes up most of my time. For example, in the Failure Modes and Effects Analysis, given a circuit with thousands of components, I am in charge of analyzing the effect of a failure of one of those components in the whole circuit. And yes, this is done component-by-component. Of course, I don't mind doing this, as I am so in love with my job that time does really fly.
However, even though all this analyzing effort, in the end we can still watch multiple times European made satellites and space probes fail, like for example:
- Ariane 5 maiden flight, guidance software failure due to reuse of Ariane 4 design;
- Beagle 2, failed to deploy solar panels;
- Schiaparelli, failed to land;
- Philae, landing harpoons failed and the thruster designed to keep it on the comet's surface failed to fire;
- Galileo, multiple clock failures.
You name it...
To the point
My point is: even though most of the time of a designer's job is to write justification documents - that few people read, and performing many detailed analysis - that no one will review, stuff still fails.
I don't judge failures! Not at all. I admire and applaud Elon Musk and SpaceX, for going all-in with their launchers and trying things that many said were impossible. But looking at Europe what I am skeptic about is the over bureaucratization and conservationism of the European space industry. While SpaceX is taking huge risks, yet showing amazing progress, in the old continent I feel that space is a decaying over expensive failure fest, with no incredible life changing achievements. Ariane 6, for example, a rocket in development by Airbus was this week made redundant by the reusable Falcon 9 first stage.
The pillars of the problem
I have come to think of the problem more deeply and I have come to realize four factors that are slowing down space development in Europe:
1) Bureaucratic culture. Too much documentation and paper work. Designers should spend more time testing and trying new stuff, rather than writing boring documents and thinking about every possible failure, when in practice the failure will happen from something that theoretically is not predictable.
2) Conservative approach. Any reuse of an already used design in the past is broadly well received. Innovation is repressed and slowed down in order for the progress steps to be as small but "controllable" as possible.
3) Lack of Entrepreneurial mindset. For the general public and politicians, space is seen as a money sink and not as an opportunity to grow, explore and innovate.
4) Outdated standardization. Yes, I am looking at you “ECSS”.
The consequences are obvious:
- The technology used in space is largely outdated when compared to ground applications. This disincentives engineers to work in space due to the feeling of “working in the past”.
- Some engineers frustrated with the innovation repressing culture do not feel motivated to have a career in the sector.
- The bureaucratic nature of the performed work drives away the smartest engineers out of the sector.
- With each failure, the credibility of the industry is little by little being degraded. Even if the culture of the industry would change, public and political opinion is still remarkably indifferent regarding space.
Now the question must be asked: what can Europe, ESA and to a further extent the EU, should do to reverse this trend?
Europe has endured a lot of failures despite efforts to standardize space design. Bureaucratic and conservative culture is repressing innovation in the sector and disincentivizing engineers to dedicate their careers. Politicians and the general public are indifferent to space. What should be done to reverse this trend