A column by Marco Fuchs: thoughts about time and space

A spaceport in the North Sea would catapult Germany into the future as a location of the aerospace industry

October 2, 2020. Hardly any other space topic is currently receiving as much media attention in Germany as the proposal for a German spaceport in the North Sea. I can tell this very easily from the fact that I am asked for my opinion on this topic by journalists almost every week. One question that is always asked is: do we in Germany really need a spaceport in the North Sea? My answer is always: yes, we do need it. And yes, the offshore spaceport has what it takes to take Germany and Europe a huge step forward as a location of the aerospace industry. This could make it possible to further expand the importance of space for the economy as a whole. In addition, it offers strategic and logistical advantages which are not only financially attractive for both the state and commercial launches, but also relevant for security related space missions.

None of the existing locations is ideal

For OHB, the proposal, which was submitted by the Federation of German Industries (BDI), offers very practical advantages: We need a launch site for our micro-launcher, which is being developed and built by Rocket Factory Augsburg and is scheduled to be launched for the first time in 2022. Although there are a number of spaceport initiatives for smaller rockets in Europe, the conditions are far from ideal at any of the proposed sites. Sometimes the number of annual launches is limited, sometimes complex course corrections have to be made immediately after launch, which consumes additional fuel. And if you want to launch for the European Commission, you are limited to a launch site located in the European Union, which excludes launches from Norway and Great Britain. In short, there is no convenient launch site in Europe at the moment.

Launchers will orbit payloads from several spaceports in the future

Rocket Factory Augsburg has now decided to enter into a partnership with Norway and, in the near future, to make use of the spaceport being created there on the island of Andøya. We plan to launch from there from 2022 onwards. We are very grateful to our Norwegian partners from Andøya Space and the Norwegian government for the opportunity and the very good cooperation. We are also working very closely and very well with the French space agency CNES to investigate and prepare the possibility of launching the RFA One micro-launcher from the historic Diamant launch complex in Kourou, French Guiana. This would open up the possibility of launching payloads also from an EU territory. From there, a variety of other target orbits would also become available. This would be very promising for institutional business and would significantly increase our market access. I am firmly convinced that launchers will orbit payloads from several spaceports in the future. This will provide security, flexibility and greater market access. Space X has already demonstrated this impressively in the USA.

In addition, the New Space sector needs to plan as cost-effectively and agile as possible, much more so than the traditional aerospace industry. This also includes simpler logistics, which a German spaceport would definitely offer. The distances that have to be covered would be much shorter than with all other options. So first of all, the space industry has a very pragmatic interest in a spaceport on German territory.

Demand justifies investment

I am frequently asked whether such an offshore spaceport would be worthwhile at all, whether there is sufficient demand to justify the investment and the infrastructure. The answer to that is also clearly yes, not only from the point of view of the rocket manufacturer, but also from the point of view of the satellite manufacturer and space system operator. It is part of OHB's and any other successful space company's daily business to observe the market and to look closely at how trends develop. This is why we can also make a good assessment of the development of the small satellite market. In the coming years, the demand for small and micro-satellites will grow immensely, both for the market of satellite constellations and for smaller programmes where mini-fleets or swarms of small satellites are launched for specific applications.

Small launch vehicles will play a less important role in building up such constellations, but they will have their time to shine when individual satellites need to be replaced. Constellations of more than 3.000 satellites constantly need replacements, especially since small satellites have a very limited lifetime anyway. The maintenance and repair of such a system can easily become a full-time job, which is best done using micro-launchers.

Fleets and swarms of satellites

A really exciting development is the use of smaller fleets and swarms of satellites for applications such as Earth observation and communications. These days, four shoe box-sized satellites, each with a mass of four kilograms, have been launched on a Russian Soyuz rocket to demonstrate a technical world first under the name "NetSat": They will communicate directly with each other, exchange data and autonomously coordinate themselves optimally for their tasks in terms of position and orientation. In follow-up missions, this formation flight will open up new observation methods like putting together individual images like a puzzle and sending three-dimensional images back to Earth. These formation control technologies, which were developed by Prof. Klaus Schilling's team at the Center for Telematics in Würzburg, enable for the first time an autonomous formation flight in a 3D configuration and thus many new and above all more cost-effective applications for small satellites, which will be of great interest e.g. for climate research and the industry connected to it. A really very innovative project, which I am very impressed with. I wish Prof. Schilling every success with it!

Spaceport opens up economic ecosystem

There is also another thing which is particularly worthwhile about a German spaceport, but which is far too little considered and discussed: The creation of a German spaceport greatly influences the future vision of Germany as a country with a flourishing economy. For readers who are not space enthusiasts, it may sound somewhat presumptuous to directly link the future well-being of the German economy to a floating launch platform in the North Sea, but when I mention this aspect I am in fact thinking about location development and the value chain. We in Germany now have an almost historic opportunity in a market of the future - and what, if not the space business is a market of the future? We now have the chance to form a cluster with relatively low investment and thus build an economic ecosystem that covers everything from the manufacturer of the smallest screw to the complete application of the product. And this is by no means just about the really well-positioned and globally competitive German space industry. In our micro-launcher project, we are deliberately looking at products that already exist and that we can purchase at low cost, e.g. parts used in the automotive and aviation industries. The fact that the space industry in Germany is so well positioned is undoubtedly also due to the fact that we are surrounded by cutting-edge technology in many other areas and can benefit and learn from that.

Boost for economic development

Anyone who has had a look at the almost automatic development of settlements around an airport will understand that this can apply in almost exactly the same way to a spaceport: Wherever I put my product into application, I will also try to produce. Wherever the production takes place, you will also meet the customer. A German spaceport will inevitably give a boost to the development of the economy, which can spread very quickly from the directly affected space industry to the entirety of the German economy. This is already noticeable in the maritime industry, which is naturally very interested in the spaceport because of the nature of the proposed platform, but which has also very quickly recognised the development potential.

Of course, there are many reasons why such a spaceport in the North Sea is difficult or causes further problems. I also admit quite openly that there may still be show stoppers that we do not yet know about today; for example, if environmental or nature conservation law reasons or species protection should speak against it. I am fully aware that these aspects cannot simply be wiped away and must be dealt with. Nevertheless, we are currently experiencing a momentum that can certainly be compared to the Gigafactory in Grünheide.

If I were to set up a start-up company today that was even remotely concerned with aerospace or the applications resulting from it, I would look for a location that offered me the best possible environment and where I would have planning security for the coming years. A German spaceport would continue the ambitions that Germany has demonstrated in the aerospace industry in recent years and which led to the positive development of the New Space ecosystem in the first place. A German spaceport would also offer good future prospects for the next generation of space travellers. So I would settle down here and expect to be able to observe "my product" in the near future from an escort boat as it is launched by a micro-launcher from an offshore spaceport in the North Sea.

Personal details:

Born in 1962, Marco Fuchs studied law in Berlin, Hamburg and New York. He worked as an attorney in New York and Frankfurt am Main from 1992 to 1995. In 1995, he joined OHB, the company that his parents had built up. He has been Chief Executive Officer of OHB SE since 2000 and of OHB System AG since 2011. Marco Fuchs is married and has two children.