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The Belgians are also in space: this is how our country is trying to move the lines

The Belgian space sector is doing well. But this industry will really take off when it puts its excellence at the service of ambition and innovation.

Benoît Deper, founder and CEO of Aerospacelab, which sells its own 100% Belgian observation satellites. © Jean-Luc Flemal

We are very small in the universe, and even more so in Belgium. However, this has never prevented Belgium from having dozens of companies that have been active in the aerospace field for years, in particular thanks to the support of the European International Agency (ESA). There are now around a hundred of them, fairly evenly distributed between Wallonia and Flanders: space exploration, Earth observation, rocket launchers, telecommunications, navigation… Business that is booming thanks to Belgium’s place within the ESA. A founding member and major financial contributor (250 million euros per year), our country enjoys a comfortable place in decision-making. “Historically, we have always had a strong presence”, says David Praet, space business group leader within Agoria, the federation of Belgian technology companies. “Our contribution to the ESA budget allows us to weigh at the negotiating table, to support the projects of the large Member States, but also to put other initiatives on the table, which support our industrial policy.“A situation which offers a certain stability to Belgian companies, which is beneficial for the national economy. “According to the analyzes of Belspo (the federal public science policy programming service – Editor’s note), one euro invested in aerospace by Belgium yields 4 euros in direct return, which is very interesting.

The walloon bolt

According to the old clichés often conveyed, the Belgian space industry only manufactures “the bolts and screws” of rockets, on behalf of larger international companies. Except that some actors are trying to move the lines. The best example: Aerospacelab, based in Mont-Saint-Guibert. Launched in early 2018, the company now has around 150 employees and is aiming for 200 by the end of 2022. Initially specializing in the field of information, it now sells its own small 100% Belgian observation satellites. “Initially, we made them for ourselves to provide the information our customers wanted, but we quickly realized that we could also sell them to external customers.”, explains Benoît Deper, founder and CEO. “We remain a box which sells information thanks to our own satellites, but financed by funds and the sale of satellites.” Aerospacelab’s customers are active in both private and public sectors, such as ministries, agencies, the European Commission… “We are asked for information in the field of security, defence, agriculture… But also in logistics or monitoring of world markets…

A satellite giant in Charleroi

The satellite sales business is also growing impressively. By the end of the year, a first New Louvanian factory should produce around 24 satellites a year, while the construction of a second, much larger and Charleroi-based, has just started a few weeks ago. It will be one of the largest in the world for this type of gear. Following the model of car manufacturers, basic structures built on the line and customizable at the request of the customer, 500 satellites should be assembled there every year once it is operational in a few years. “We are moving out of the old-fashioned development mode, entirely dependent on public agencies, towards something more iterative, more agile, comments the boss. We can work on smaller projects than before, the barrier to entry is lower… We can operate without subcontractors, entirely in-house. This removes a lot of obstacles to productivity. Moreover, each time we need external skills, we end up internalizing them.” According to Benoît Deper, the Belgian space industry is doing well but still too often seems lacking in ambition. “They are very good subcontractors, who lack vision. Many of these companies work for larger contractors and are supported 100% by public money. But unfortunately, with this lack of competition, it stagnates and a lot of very good engineers often get stuck in these patterns. Private investment, on the other hand, imposes deadlines, pushes to surpass oneself, to innovate…

A space burger

In terms of research and innovation, some Belgian projects nevertheless stand out. On the side of the Gembloux Agro-Bio Tech faculty of the University of Liège, the Smart Gastronomy Lab studies food and its evolution from every angle. Last May, this lab entered into a partnership with the ESA to develop meals for astronauts. We wanted to know more but secret-defense: the European Agency asked them not to communicate any more on the subject. When this agreement was announced, the Smart Gastronomy Lab team nevertheless explained to RTBF that they were working on healthy and tasty recipes, but using 50% protein from spirulina, a microalgae. The reason? The ESA thinks that it can be cultivated in space in the future and could therefore be transformed into food in shuttles and space stations. Among the examples presented at the time: pasta or a hamburger of lentils and spirulina. The idea being to offer known dishes that are pleasant to eat and not only a dose of vegetable protein, but also fresh food, a rare thing in orbit that offers a boost to morale.

The goal of the Gembloux researchers is first to develop prototypes of machines that will allow astronauts to prepare these foods in space, but it will still be a while before the ISS crew organizes a burger party. Finally, Belgium is also a breeding ground for talent in the aerospace industry. ESA is currently looking for its next astronauts. In February, after a first sorting of more than 20,000 applications, 50 Belgians were still on the shortlist of 1,361 people to succeed Dirk Frimout and Frank De Winne. Not so bad for a small country. The lucky winners will be known in the fall.