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Strategies to support Romanian competitiveness on the international space market

on 22 November 2021

As an entity representing Romania within the European Space Agency (ESA) and fully integrated into international level elite organizations, the Romanian Space Agency (ROSA) plays an active part in supporting national competitiveness in an economic sector that now globally sums up about $ 400 billion annually.

More than any other explanation, the concept of space economy illustrates an important distinction for Dr. Flaviu Răducanu, Director of Science and Technology at ROSA. This suggests that space is not a technological field, but a place, a destination that must be viewed with the same openness as any other area of ​​action on Earth. Therefore, the specializations that can bring innovation and performance in space are much more numerous than they seem at first sight.

Beyond the most well-known events dedicated to space, such as ESA’s campaign from this year which aimed to select a new generation of astronauts, the international space market offers significant long-term development opportunities to all entities in Romania. The only requirement is to meet the criteria of professionalism and innovation in this area.

The academic environment, the research community and economic agents from Romania made efforts in this direction. These endeavours can ensure both the connection to an extremely profitable segment, with a factor of up to 16 times the initial investment, and the connection to technologies and the essential products in a development logic that will benefit from the experience of over 50 years of our country in space-related operations. Dr. Flaviu Răducanu sets out the fundamental landmarks of ROSA’s strategy in supporting the competitiveness of Romanian entities on the international space market and outlines the integrative role of the agency in asserting national competencies in increasingly complex space exploration initiatives.

What are the principles underlying the ROSA strategy in the direction of supporting Romania's competitiveness in international space related projects?

Our activity has a certain logic behind it. Romania is a country with limited resources that can’t afford to invest in all international trending areas. Therefore, we think just like any pragmatic investor, about how these limited resources could produce the greatest effects, especially since current estimates indicate a factor of 15-16 times the investment in this sector. Using this strategy, we have always encouraged those initiatives that fall within the areas not covered by the European technology portfolio. ESA is updating such an overview, in which we see where European technology exists and where it does not exist, and what the continental strengths and weaknesses are. Since this opportunity analysis is already done, we need to identify the technological niche where we have adequate capabilities, ensuring that we develop benchmarks for which there is a definite market. We also encourage being specialised on a certain activity, not to set up too many objectives at once. This helps us in the long run, considering that companies that kept their specificity for a long time, obtained valuable results and are recognized in the sector. In fact, most players in the European industry are small and medium-sized enterprises, while large companies generally deal with integrating systems and components. Then we distanced ourselves from the studies that remain in a drawer, regardless of the field of applicability - planets, engines, rockets, robots.

How is this strategy applied by ROSA and how do you ensure the objectivity criteria in the selection of partners from Romania?

In order to be sure that the best proposals are funded, we used the most objective analysis and coordination framework we have,  the one ESA provides. The reason is simple: in relation with ESA, we are not the ones who make the selection. Neither is someone else in the country. There is a signed contract between the Romanian company, or a national research and development institute, and ESA. Everything that is done within a certain programme, is for the benefit of a mission or within a clearly defined technological path, which ensures the applicability of the project.

Another benchmark that we use has already been mentioned: the final result needs to be useful, and not used. Not just a magazine article. It has to be something that really works. Of course, scientific articles are essential for advances in science, but since our resources in the space field are limited, we chose to support projects that have applicability on the market.

After the objectivity and utility factor, there is the competitiveness criteria. As in the real economy, not everyone can join an ESA auction and propose anything. Pre-qualification, proving the expertise in the field, and a quality assurance system are mandatory. In order to work with ESA, any institution must first register in a database that requires a lot of information. For example, in the case of public auctions, the focus is on fees and taxes. In this case, the focus is on experience and credibility. ESA audits candidates using a very precise mechanism. This is just like a school for a start-up, for any research team.

But the fact that you don't know everything from the beginning of the process is not a downside. On the contrary, you learn something new and useful. In Romania we currently have about 280 institutions qualified to work with ESA in space projects. Every day there are 80-90 contracts in progress with these entities, proof that we have a functional mechanism and that all participants are performing in their niche.

Perseverance and consistency matter in this field, as much as seriousness. This is not the place where you got a contract and stopped there, you have to prove your long-term involvement. Just an example: the selection for the scientific team dedicated to the Mars Sample Return mission has recently begun. The team will be involved in the analysis of samples taken from Mars, but it is expected that the analysis material will not reach Earth earlier than eight years from now. Despite this fact, the selection has started now. We apply a type of guidance that ensures a high maturity degree regarding both economic agents and research institutes actions.

How does ROSA actually act in managing the ESA-funded projects?

First, let's clarify a confusion that often occurs in public: ESA is an organization of member states, in which ROSA was selected to represent Romania, which became a full member 10 years ago. ROSA was founded 25 years ago to ensure the continuity of activities carried out by government structures that have coordinated the space activities of our country since the 1960s. ROSA is part of several regional and international organizations dedicated to space activities, but we participate on behalf of Romania in committees and commissions within ESA.

We have the capacity to ensure the connection between ESA and the Romanian space industry on behalf of the Romanian state. According to ESA terminology, the industry means all parties involved in this activity sector- research and development institutes, the academic community, economic agents.  Here is an example: before the COVID-19 pandemic, we organized 3-4 "ESA Industry Days" events annually, where we tried to bring together all relevant stakeholders in the country and put them in direct contact with representatives of ESA and other companies from the member states.

Then, in relation to ESA, we ensure that the rules of the ESA Convention are respected when allocations are made.

There are two types of national contributions to ESA. The first one consists of an amount dedicated to the mandatory programs and operational costs of the organization. This is calculated as a proportion of gross national product for the 22 Member States and Romania represents approximately 1% of ESA’s total budget. The other contribution is intended for optional programmes and represents Romania's share of participation in each of the multiannual programs and space missions which our country assumed following an agreement concluded at ministerial level with ESA.

These optional programs are developed in very clear directions, and each ESA Member State makes a specific contribution, depending on national competences and expertise. But there are three important aspects: if an entity wants to participate in an ESA programme or mission, it must go through a competition organised by ESA. The national contribution doesn’t automatically ensure its access, but only the right to run for it, together with other entities. Contracts with ESA are commercial and have a controlled and transparent rate of return to the beneficiary. They don’t represent grants or state aid as in the case of projects in national research programs or those of the European Commission; the third clarification refers to the principle of "geo return" applied by ESA. Because of this, the national contribution is almost fully returned in the form of contracts between ESA and Romanian entities. The industrial or intellectual property generated by these contracts also belongs to our country. For this mechanism to work, we are constantly in dialogue with the industry, with research institutes and universities in Romania, in order to always have a clear image of our potential.

Government fluctuations over the past few years led to significant delays in the payment of our obligations to ESA. This situation might affect the rapidly positive developments in research and also the more than 1500 employees in the space industry in Romania. This is why it must be urgently resolved by the ministry responsible for payments. 

Are there other levers through which you can support Romanian organizations in space projects?

When we had the opportunity, we established connections with entities from the other ESA Member States in order to form consortia. There were situations when a team from Romania came up with an initiative, but they needed expertise that did not exist in the country, so during the ESA meetings we submitted proposals of programme association. But these are awarded directly, but given on a competitive basis by ESA.

For ESA Member States that have recently joined the organization, such as Romania,a specific specialisation assistance programme was created.  For example, for us it is “Romanian Industry Incentive Scheme" and it is fully managed by ESA: it is intended for companies with no experience in the space industry, to support them in complying with the high demands of this sector. It is a financial structure that can step in punctually in the case of innovations that cover the technological gaps identified at European level. It is not about large amounts. The beneficiaries are especially small enterprises, start-ups, entities that don’t have consistent budgets anyway. For small companies it was also developed a training programme regarding space industry standards and how to work in this field.

Can you provide some specific examples for Romanian initiatives that were successful in space applications?

I’d rather not make nominations without the consent of the parties involved. But I can point out an idea which ESA embraced with great enthusiasm: replacing wiring, wires inside space structures, especially satellites with wireless communication systems. This innovation is in a very advanced phase because satellites are already prepared to test this solution based on Romanian technology and equipment.

Also, in the case of satellites, which are already very numerous, their behaviour is controlled by reaction wheels. These disks use the variation of the rotation moment and they put the satellite in a certain configuration with respect to the Earth. It is a very common piece of equipment, supplied mainly from the United States of America, but which has experienced operating errors in recent years. Many satellites missed their mission due to the failure of this part. Romania developed an alternative solution that seems to solve the errors registered by the recently launched satellites. They are not spectacular solutions, we are not talking about astronauts dressed in white suits, but in this field, they are essential technologies.

I also have the example of a Romanian start-up that was integrated into an important company which produces electronic equipment. This time, without ROSA’s support, they came to provide high-speed switches for the world's major space agencies.

In these conditions, how do you evaluate the quality of the involvement of Romanian entities in international space projects?

Romanian entities are competitive, wherever they participate. There are other niche examples in addition to those presented above: we produce retro-reflectors for ground location of satellites, we make subassemblies for Ariane launchers, but also navigation systems, including for potential moon landings and space docking procedures, we develop software for telecommunications satellites, we develop software for space operations management centers, we run ground testing systems for structures that reach space, and test benches that are often more expensive than the final object. These are just a few purely industrial examples.

Regarding the scientific side, we develop various activities in the robotic field, spacecraft landing, command control and autonomous flight. However, the most important thing is that we managed in this field to reconnect industry with the applied research. This means to bring together most of the time the research team and the industry that manufactured the final product.

Although this type of collaboration was diluted in Romania in most fields, with negative economic consequences, we managed to revitalize this connection in our field and make it functional.

Do you think that the public promotion of companies with outstanding results in the space sector could boost the responsibility of decision makers towards this segment of activity?

First of all, we need to be aware that space is the place where things that impact our daily lives happen, such as mobile navigation applications that use European Galileo satellites.

A 16-fold multiplication of investment should itself be a strong argument to support activities in outer space. We are talking about a place that encourages the development of cutting-edge technologies, that supports competitiveness and mobilizes future perspectives, so we need to stop considering that space is only for the Americans, the Chinese or the Russians, or for the rich nations that send astronauts in space in monumental rockets.

Space is a place where entities can make a profit, in terms of economy, development and prosperity. It is enough to look at our neighbours who have national space programmes, while we, in the absence of such a strategic program, rely mainly on ESA initiatives. Of course, this international framework sometimes helps us avoid some national level problems, to overcome obstacles, whether bureaucratic or otherwise, but the Romanian authorities should make a very pragmatic calculation and support national initiatives to participate in space programmes.

In reality, space reflects almost everything that is already happening on Earth. Space means precision agriculture and biology, it means geology - probably the next El Dorado will be the exploitation of the resources from the Moon, and we have solid geology school, so we don’t start from scratch. Space means medicine, especially in such an intense period from this perspective. Just as there are products and technologies developed for space that have found applicability in everyday life, so the expertise gained in various fields in research institutes in Romania could expand its coverage in space, to access a new and very dynamic market.

However, following last year's consultations to update smart specializations at the national level, the highest score was obtained by a space-related subdomain. Why is this recognition from the experts who participated in the consultative process so relevant?

It proves that we don’t knock on closed doors. I was pleasantly surprised to see the result, especially since not only those involved in the space field expressed themselves, but it was a wide public consultation. The presence of several smart specializations related to space in this report is part of the National Strategy for Intelligent Research, Innovation and Specialization 2021-2027 elaboration process. This also supports our efforts to propose a national strategy for space.

The Romanian Space Agency (ROSA) coordinates the elaboration of the National RDI Strategy in the fields of security and space industry for the strategic planning cycle 2021-2027 related to the new European context. The strategy is built around the 3S concept: Science and technology (including exploration), Services (including launchers) and Security. Space and security industry development, which includes the defense industry, is essential for national development, ensuring, without limiting itself to: national power increasing; country integration in the environment of political alliances (EU, NATO, ESA, EDA, OECD), both as an industrial and technological actor; efficient use of the competitive capacity of national industry for the period of development towards the EU average.

We are in the final stage of this strategic approach, which includes a cross component involving several areas. This also implies a higher degree of harmonization between all parties involved. It is a strategy coordinated by ROSA following an extensive dialogue with many institutions in the country and we hope to validate it later this year.

Besides Romania's representation in ESA, ROSA developed bilateral and multilateral relations with many other prestigious organizations in the space sector, including the International Space Exploration Coordination Group  (ISECG), which includes 16 worldwide space agencies. What role does membership in ISECG play in supporting Romanian competitiveness in the international space market?

It is true that in the absence of a national space program in Romania, ESA represents the main locomotive in this sector. But as a national agency, we collaborate intensely with space agencies abroad, NASA, ROSCOSMOS, JAXA (Japan ), CNSA (China), and other agencies in mature or emerging markets.

It is an honor to be part of ISECG. This means the privilege of having access to strategic information in the long-term definition of space missions and programs. Despite the inevitable competition between distinct national interests, at a pragmatic level, things are complementary. At the ISECG level the cooperation happens in very concrete terms.

The latest version of the “Global Exploration Roadmap”, one of the public products of the organization, is being launched last year. Because we are present in this group, we can orient ourselves beyond the framework of ESA priorities and focus our efforts in order to position ourselves as well as possible in relation to the most advanced trends and centers of interest. What will happen in space during the next years only makes sense if we work together. Thus, we have the chance to collaborate closely with experts from different working groups, to prepare ourselves as well as possible for Romanian contributions to the space missions that will come.

Few people know that a space probe which was now launched to Mars comes after a mission that began 20 years ago; there are people who have worked all their careers for such a long-term programme.

In conclusion, what is ROSA’s role in delimiting and consolidating an ecosystem of active and competitive Romanian organizations in the space industry?

ROSA assumes the role of facilitator, catalyst for national initiatives in the space sector, while ensuring a neutral area for discussions and consultations. It offers a connection with the international space market, so we support as many entities as possible in Romania to connect to this market and to value their own resources and expertise. I expect that all the actors involved would create a critical mass so that our effort focused on promoting space is reduced, allowing us to focus on actions to expand the space community in Romania. Unfortunately, areas in which we were pioneers are now treated with lack of engagement at the national level. It is worth remembering the contribution to the aerospace activity of personalities such as Aurel Vlaicu, Traian Vuia, Hermann Oberth or Henri Coandă in order to realise that in Romania high-precision instruments that flew into space were designed and manufactured during the second half of the 1960s. We don’t start from scratch, we continue on a trajectory that began a long time ago, which we don’t want to leave behind. Beyond the other vital priorities of Romania, we need to regain at some point the sense of greatness and the desire to build a better future. Including in the space field.

Source: MarketWatch