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It’s no secret that Europe’s launch industry is going through what many have described as a crisis. Although this may be disputed by some, the current state of affairs is likely due to the monopoly that is Arianespace and the industry stalwarts it orbits. Although much of ESA launch system funding does go toward reinforcing this monopoly, there is an agency programme that has, since 2020, been providing small awards to launch startups looking to break through and compete.
The introduction of Boost!
ESA's Boost! programme was first announced in June 2019 and was at the time referred to as the Commercial Space Transportation Services and Support Programme (C-STS). However, the origins of the programme actually date back further to July 2018 with the agency publishing a call for ideas regarding the future of space transportation.
According to the call, the agency was looking for commercially viable ventures that would complement existing ESA space transportation programmes and activities. In addition to launch services, the call also highlighted in-space transportation services. In total, the agency received 79 individual proposals with 41 being considered eligible.
In December 2018, the agency announced that it had selected one proposal from each of three identified categories: in-space services, return from orbit, and light satellite access to space.
In the in-space services category, ESA selected a proposal from six French post-graduate engineers from the ISAE-SUPAERO technical university. The proposal was called SpaceTug and was to offer orbit-rasing services to satellite customers utilizing electric propulsion. I am not certain if this proposal did actually materialize into a company, but I do know that several of the founders of Exotrail went to ISAE-SUPAERO. Astroscale was selected in the return from orbit category with the proposal calling from a standard satellite docking mechanism for more efficient capture and deorbit services. Finally, PLD Space and its Miura 5 vehicle received the nod in the light satellite access to space category.
The benefit to the three proposals was, however, minimal with no funding offered. The three winners were invited for further discussions with ESA experts who would assist in developing their ideas further. They also received a trip to witness a launch at the Guiana Space Centre. Really, the most significant aspect of this initial activity was that ESA realized a clear need to support the burgeoning sector and utilized what it had learned to propose what would become the Boost! programme at the 2019 ministerial meeting in Madrid.
The launch of Boost!
Following the programme's adoption at the 2019 ministerial meeting, in April 2020 ESA published a permanently open call for commercial space transportation services. Interestingly, by the time this call was published, ESA had removed potential support for spaceports from the programme which had been proposed in the initial June 2019 announcement.
To be eligible for Boost! support operators were required to demonstrate that their services were a complete offering with customers not being required to procure any additional essential service elements. It added that the operator would be responsible for finding the funding and resources necessary to develop and deploy the service. So, what did ESA offer over and above technical support? This is where the agency introduced its co-founding offer.
To receive co-funding operators were required to identify qualifying activities that the funding would be utilized for.
Qualifying activities to receive Boost! co-funding:
Technology development and maturation forming an integral part of the proposed service;
System and sub-system developments, qualification and associated testing;
Development and qualification of processes and procedures;
Software development and qualification;
Means of production, test facilities, jigs and tools, mechanical and electrical ground support, excluding civil works;
First service items or proof of concept hardware.
The percentage of funding that would be supplied by ESA was dependent on the activity that the funding would be used for and the business type. Large companies would receive 50% for research and 25% for development. Small to medium enterprises receive 80% of research funds and 40% of development funds. Supporting universities or research organzations with no commercial interest receive 100% of funding across both research and development activities. The remainder of the funding for the activities must be supplied by the operator and its subcontractors in “cash or in kind.”
The agency is only allowed to consider operators from ESA member states that have opted into the Boost! programme. In 202 this limited applications to operators from Germany, Italy, Norway, Portugal, Romania, Sweden, and the United Kingdom. Austria, Belgium, Netherlands, Spain, and Switzerland would later join as additional contributing states.
The application process for Boost! support is split into two parts. Operators are first required to submit an outline service proposal to determine eligibility. According to the agency, these eligibility reviews are performed periodically every six weeks. If given the go-ahead to continue with the application process, operators must then submit a full-service proposal which is required to be accompanied by notifications of support from the relevant participating state. The providers have a total of eight weeks to complete this second application. A formal tender evaluation process is then conducted which may lead to a possible contract.
The first award as part of the Boost! programme was an interesting one. In May 2020, DLR launch its “microlauncher competition”. The competition was aimed at supporting German startups that were seeking to develop and commercially operate microlaunchers. DLR explained that it would make a total of €25 million of funding available to up to five companies. In the first phase of the competition, HyImpulse, Rocket Factory Augsburg (RFA), and Isar Aerospace each received €500,000 in funding to continue the development of their respective launch vehicle solutions.
In May 2021, Isar was announced as the first of two winners of the competition, receiving €11 million euros in funding. However, in order to receive that funding the company was required to commit to carrying 100 kilograms worth of payloads selected by DLR aboard the first two flights of its Spectrum vehicle for free. In April 2022, RFA was announced as the second of the two winners, receiving the same deal as Isar.
From the outside looking in, it would have been easy to mistake the competition as a wholly DLR initiative. However, DLR did not itself award funding. Instead, each company received a letter of support from DLR that was utilized to secure funding through the ESA Boost! Programme. Boost! awards would be more straightforward going forward.
Two UK-based launch startups were the next to benefit from the ESA Boost! programme. In March 2021, ESA announced that it had awarded co-funding to the value of €7.45 million to Orbex and €3 million to Skyrora. At the time of the award, both companies were targeting 2022 for the maiden flight of their respective vehicles.
Orbex was awarded the co-funding for the development of its Prime vehicle’s avionics, software, and guidance, navigation, and control (GNC) system. Orbex subcontracted Deimos Engenharia in Portugal and Deimos Space in the UK to support the development activities. The UK efforts received the bulk of the funding with €7 million while Portugal received the remaining €450,000.
Skyrora was to use its €3 million in co-funding to complete the qualification of its main rocket engine and to conduct integrated hot fire tests of its first and second stages. The company completed the second stage integrated hot fire test in August 2018 but has yet to conduct a first stage hot fire test.
In-orbit manufacturing services startup Space Forge was awarded 2 million in co-funding through the ESA Boost! programme in September 2021. The funding was earmarked to support a two-year development push that was to include preliminary and detailed design phases, as well as the launch, in-orbit operation, and return of the first operational ForgeStar demonstration vehicle. Unfortunately, the return of the ForgeStar vehicle was not achieved due to the failure of the final Virgin Orbit flight in early 2023.
In June 2022, ESA awarded Italian in-orbit services company D-Orbit €1.95 million in co-funding to be utilized over one year. The funding was to be used to enhance manufacturing and testing capability to increase the rate at which it produced hardware and electronics for its ION satellite carrier. The funding was also used to support the development and qualification of a thruster that is being developed by the company.
Swiss start-up Coactum received the most recent round of Boost! co-funding with the company being awarded €390,000. The company was founded in 2021 and is developing an in-orbit maneuvering vehicle. The funding received from ESA will be utilized to support the design and development of the company’s “volume-efficient propellant storage system.” Coactum appears to have been the last company to receive funding from the first call of the ESA Boost! programme with the initial round having closed at the end of 2022.
At the ministerial-level meeting in November 2022, the decision was made to expand the Boost! programme with additional member states signing on to participate. Following the allocation of this additional support, in March 2023 ESA published a new call for Boost! submissions. This latest call will be open through 2025.
In addition to expanding what was already there, the 2022 ministerial also saw the adoption of a new arm of the Boost! programme called the European Flight Ticket Initiative. To fund and administer this element of the Boost! programme, ESA partnered with the European Commission. The initiative will co-fund rides to space for selected ready-to-fly satellites that require in-orbit testing to reach commercial maturity. Although the call does make it clear that these missions will be launching aboard European launch vehicles, it doesn't specify whether the companies providing these flights will be startups or Arianespace.
When I began writing this article, I started with my conclusion. However, after reviewing the programme’s history and accomplishments, I was forced to rewrite that original conclusion. The research changed my mind. I initially chastised ESA for not doing enough, for not being more daring in providing larger tranches of funding to the companies it deemed worthy to receive Boost! funding. To a degree, I still believe that. However, I am also aware that the ESA budget is finite, and each programme is required to prove its worth before being allocated progressively higher budgets.
In November 2022, ESA revealed that for every euro invested by the agency as part of the Boost! programme, the recipient companies managed to attract five euros from private actors. That would mean that the €39.79 million in co-funding awarded by ESA attracted €198.95 million in private investment in the European space industry. That’s a pretty incredible statistic. And that success ensured that at the 2022 ministerial meeting more funding was allocated for the programme and more member states signed on to benefit from it.
Boost! is a winner and as long as member states and ESA leadership continue to provide the necessary support, it could quite easily become one of the most influential and impactful of ESA’s programmes.
Governments can, and should, play a complementary role with the private sector to help spur new groundbreaking innovations. Even SpaceX wouldn't be where it is today without hefty government backing.
As I discussed here, https://www.lianeon.org/p/the-triple-helix-of-innovation , the government can subsidize R&D, or direct money toward Pasteur's Quadrant and areas that are too high risk, or returns too distant, for the private sector to stomach.
Thanks for sharing the Boost! program with us, I had been completely unaware of the existence of such a program.
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