The Pale Blue Dot as a wake-up call: Germany's space strategy and the art of the possible
After more than ten years, the German government has presented a new space strategy. It outlines solid goals, but what it could have been, namely an inspirational vision made in Germany, it is not. This becomes particularly clear when one considers three events that occurred at the same time as the announcement of the new space strategy and reflect it in a different light. From India's moon landing, which is seen as overcoming colonialism, to the UK's announcement of a major new space fund and the James Webb Space Telescope's discoveries about Europe's potential for habitable oceans. A change of perspective inspired by futurology concepts and the iconic "Pale Blue Dot" image could be the key to a more ambitious German space vision.
Germany recently presented its new space strategy. After more than 13 years. What could have been a great opportunity becomes especially clear when one looks at the space strategy in the context of recent developments in other countries in the same month.
The UK's Visionary Investment in Space: A Lesson in Ambition Almost simultaneously with the announcement of Germany's space strategy, the UK announced £65 million funding for innovative space technologies. According to Science Minister George Freeman, the funding aims to maintain the UK's prominent position in this global growth market. With huge investment and ambitious programmes, the country has become the most attractive location for private space investment in Europe after the US. In the last ten years alone, various funding programmes for emerging space start-ups have been launched here. This strategy is paying off: The British "SpaceTech" scene is flourishing and attracting more and more disruptive companies.
The British blueprint: How investment is transforming the space sector
Since 2015, $47 billion of private capital has flowed into space worldwide - 17 per cent of which has gone to the UK.
The ambitious space plans are also paying off economically for the British. Experts estimate the market volume in the global space sector at over 1 trillion dollars by 2030. With its space sector worth a good 17 billion pounds, Great Britain can secure a large piece of this lucrative pie. In fact, according to an analysis by consultancy PwC, the UK was the most attractive destination for private space investment after the US. Nine of the largest British venture capitalists have invested in space since 2015. The areas of Earth observation, satellite communications and manufacturing are particularly high on the list. While only 56 per cent of investments went into revenue-generating space companies in 2015, by 2022 this had risen to 95 per cent. This shows how quickly the industry has professionalised in the Kingdom. With this momentum, the UK can become one of the leading space nations.
While the UK's financial investments are attracting the attention of business economists and economists, in the same week the scientific discoveries of the James Webb Space Telescope gave scientists goosebumps. The newly discovered breakthrough findings could revolutionise our understanding of the universe and the potential for extraterrestrial life.
The James Webb Space Telescope shows the potential for Habitable Oceans on Europe The James Webb Space Telescope identified carbon dioxide on Europa's icy surface, most likely from the moon's subsurface ocean. This is an indication that Europa's ocean contains biologically essential elements such as carbon and thus has Europa's potential for habitable oceans. The role of carbon dioxide and its geological origins According to the Webb researchers, the chaotic surface region Tara Regio contains particularly high levels of carbon dioxide. Since this region is geologically very young, this suggests that the carbon dioxide originated in the ocean and reached the surface in geologically quite recent times. Although a formation of carbon dioxide on the surface cannot be completely ruled out, this implies in any case that Europe's ocean contains carbon. The researchers were not able to determine the exact ratio of carbon isotopes to distinguish between a biological or non-biological origin. Nevertheless, the discovery of carbon dioxide on Europa's surface, which originates from the ocean, is an important indication of possible habitability. According to Webb astronomer Heidi Hammel, "even in this short time, we've been able to do really significant planetary science". The announcement of the UK's investment in space and the James Webb Telescope's finding of habitable oceans in Europe coincided almost simultaneously with the week of the space strategy announcement. To understand what space travel can mean, not only in economic and scientific terms, it is worth looking at India, which made its own space history a month ago. India's moon landing: triumph of technology and national pride A few weeks ago, India succeeded in sending the first Indian to the moon. A report that was hardly worth mentioning in the western media. Yet the example of India shows what role space travel can play for the pride of a nation. Only four years ago, the previous Chandrayaan lander crashed on the moon due to a software error. It landed on 23 August 2023. Space travel as a response to colonial prejudices In a now viral video, a BBC presenter asked whether India, a country that "lacks a lot of infrastructure" and where "700 million people do not have access to a toilet", should spend money on a space programme. But for India and its people, this has a much deeper meaning. Indian billionaire Anand Mahindra responded to the BBC video by saying that the insidious effect of colonialism was to "convince its victims of their inferiority". Yet last week, people on the streets, in offices and schools across India were enthralled. Space travel as a strengthening of the country's self-confidence "We all stopped what we were doing and went outside to celebrate," recalls Kashika, a marketing manager in New Delhi reports journalist Hana H. Abraham in an article in the Guardian explaining how India's moon landing has boosted the country's self-image. Ultimately, the success of Chandrayaan-3 means that Indians everywhere are a giant step closer to being, as the great Indian writer Rabindranath Tagore said, "in a place where the mind is free from fear and the head is held high".
A place with a free spirit and an uplifted head would also suit Germany, which is once again being described as the "sick man of Europe" and is struggling with a declining automotive industry. People often ask about the German Silicon Valley and where the German Elon Musk is. There is. Less loud, more grown-up and more reflective. The last German space strategy dates back to 2010, and a lot has changed in the past 13 years. Back then, the term "New Space" was already an issue, but the recognition that is only now coming is disappointing for those who have already demonstrated what a country full of engineers and high technology can achieve. While the world continues to look to SpaceX, students in this country are developing the Hyperloop. With Isar Aerospace, Germany has its own flagship company in the space sector, and another example is "The Exploration Company", founded in Germany by the experienced Airbus manager Helene Huby. Both companies are well funded by venture capitalists who recognise the potential, the market size and the opportunities. It is unfortunate that the German government does not recognise this opportunity. Or maybe just not communicating it enough. The power of futurology: why the discourse on the future is crucial The answer to the question of why Germany does not use a space strategy - a strategy that could both develop economic potential, as the UK shows, and serve as a scientific beacon, as the James Webb telescope findings show, and initiate social change, as India is doing - may lie in an often overlooked scientific discipline that receives little attention in Germany: Futures studies. Yet perhaps it holds the key. Futures studies is a rather underrepresented discipline in Germany. It works with scenarios and various future models, based on the assumption that our expectations of the future exist in our heads. Joseph Voros has made this clear in his Future Cone, in which he depicts various scenarios. The decisive difference to the previous discourse: if different futures are possible, then they can also be shaped. This is a fundamentally different approach from the lack of alternatives that has recently been cited politically. American Visionaries: The Traction of the Future American companies, especially tech entrepreneurs like Elon Musk and Sam Altman, are masters at creating positive future scenarios. Whether it's Musk saving humanity in space or Altman taking over the machines, their visions shape public perception and discourse. They don't necessarily come true, but they influence reality by being talked about. The triangle of the future tense: past, present and future In the discourse about what can be in the future, we always move in a triangle and field of tension: there is traction of the future, but also the weight of the past and the pressure of the present. While American tech entrepreneurs use the traction of the future, many Germans seem to suffer from the weight of the past and the pressure of the present. They cling to an automotive industry that urgently needs to radically reinvent itself to remain competitive. They look back wistfully on the golden years of economic boom. The rise of national forces and the strengthening of the AfD have many causes, but one of them is certainly the longing for the good old days when Germany was still who. National pride is a difficult thing in a country with a history like Germany's, but we should still not let the opportunity to paint a positive picture of the future pass us by.
Space strategy between past and present The recently presented space strategy remains in this triangle between the weight of the past and the pressure of the present. Over many pages, it emphasises the necessity and importance of space for climate protection and summarises findings that were already known at the time of the last strategy in 2010. It fails to focus on new actors and the potential of "new space", to think in a new way. What is completely missing from the space strategy is the drawing of an inspiring image of the future. How about a Germany, the land of poets and thinkers, that develops into a country of forward thinkers. In which field, if not in the highly complex and technically demanding field of space travel, could German engineering find its highest development? The space strategy tells us nothing about this. It is too firmly stuck in the present and the past.
A future picture of space travel with pull and of shaping Yet it would be so important to paint a different picture of the future of space travel. For two reasons. To return to the potential of futurology. Futurologist Fred Polak says that the present and the past are not the precursors of an unknown future. On the contrary, the future is to a large extent the shaping source of the present and past. The future pulls, present and past follow. The decisive factor here is the realisation that there are various possible futures that can be shaped. The perspective shifts from "fighting against overwhelming forces" to "shaping through human action". This is more than just a shift along an axis; it is a fundamental change of worldview to one in which we as humans can actively shape the future. With reference to space travel. Anyone who has listened to Helene Huby, mother of four and former Airbus manager and now founder of the new space start-up "The Exploration Company", talk about her motivation for space travel, how she wants to create a better future for her children, how she, as a Frenchwoman who lived and worked in Germany for a long time, feels committed to Europe - knows how attractive the future can be. "Future Imagineries" is what futurology calls it. Future Imaginaries: The Power of Alternative Futures In his work with companies, media houses or, for example, the city of Karlsruhe, futurologist Johannes Kleske relies on "Future Imaginaries" to depict societal expectations. These imaginaries make it possible to think backwards from a projected future and determine what measures need to be taken today to realise this desired future. Future Imaginaries have the potential to shape societal expectations of the future. To put it in the future subjunctive: What might have been possible if the Space Strategy had been developed in the context of Future Imaginaries? Future-oriented space travel: Why Germany needs visions instead of doctor's visits While in the USA Elon Musk and SpaceX inspire millions with their visionary plans for space travel, Germany lacks a similar source of inspiration. The widespread saying that someone with visions should go to the doctor has a tradition in Germany. This attitude comes from a time when it was more about survival and getting things done than planning for the future. Now it is time to tackle again, but in a different context.
Kennedy, with his iconic speech declaring that Americans go to the moon "not because it's easy, but because it's hard," demonstrated how bold visions in spaceflight can inspire and fill an entire country with pride. It is precisely this kind of future-oriented thinking that would do Germany good. Space could offer precisely this opportunity to think boldly and visionarily about the future. Instead of asking ourselves on talk shows why we don't have our own Silicon Valley (and whether we even want one), we could take inspiration from European new-space companies like Isar Aerospace or D-Cubed. Spurred on by the national economic developments in the UK, we could create a special programme for the New Space sector and thus attract investors worldwide. The findings of the James Webb Telescope could further inspire us to better understand our Earth and the universe. It is time to develop "Future Imaginaries" for European space travel.
Shifting perspectives, Ferdinand von Schirach and pale blue dot It's about the change of perspective and narratives. In addition, one last one, from a completely different perspective, but one that is nevertheless connected to space. The writer Ferdinand von Schirach was recently asked in an interview what a successful life looks like. He referred to the painting "Pale Blue Dot," which hung above his desk for a long time. Voyager 2 was sent into space in the 1970s. When it was far away, engineers managed to turn the distant spacecraft around and take a photo. This photo, known as the "Pale Blue Dot", was sent back to Earth. Von Schirach describes how breathtaking the image is because you see a galaxy and then a tiny dot that is our Earth. That's all we are, that one tiny dot. There are 100 billion planets in our galaxy and about 200 billion galaxies like that, and that's only 10% of the universe. The rest is unknown, but definitely very cold.
That is a different perspective. He explains that "when you see we only have this tiny blue dot in this endless cold and loneliness. That perspective is very helpful, even when you can't get the table you want in a restaurant. "From Voyager 2's perspective, it's irrelevant." What is true for a happy life is also true for the happiness of a society and a country. Changing perspective and writing a space strategy that looks forward and then shaping the present from the future would make a difference. We are irrelevant, but this realisation of irrelevance can lead us to shape a better future and society.We should not wait 13 years to write another space strategy. Instead, we should seize the opportunity for the future now.