Benoît Depert, founder and CEO of Aerospacelab, which sells its own surveillance satellites, entirely made in Belgium. © Jean-Luc Flemal
We are very small in the universe, and even more so in Belgium. However, this has never stopped Belgium from having dozens of companies that have been active in the aerospace industry for years, thanks in part to the support of the European International Agency (ESA). Now there are about a hundred of them, and they are fairly evenly distributed between Wallonia and Flanders: space exploration, Earth observation, rocket launchers, telecommunications, navigation… A business that thrives thanks to Belgium’s place in the ESA. A founding member and a major financial contributor (250 million euros per year), our country has a comfortable place in the decision-making process. “Historically, we have always had a strong presence,” says David Preet, head of the space business group at Agoria, a federation of Belgian technology companies. “Our contribution to the ESA budget allows us to have a say at the negotiating table, to support the projects of major Member States, and to bring other initiatives to the table that support our industrial policy.” The situation, which offers some stability to Belgian companies, is beneficial for the national economy. “According to the analysis of Belspo (Federal State Science Policy Programming Service. – Ed. note), one euro invested by Belgium in the aerospace industry brings 4 euros of direct return, which is very interesting.”
According to an oft-circulated old cliché, the Belgian space industry only produces rocket “bolts and screws” on behalf of large international companies. Except that some of the actors are trying to shift the lines. Best example: Aerospacelab based in Mont-Saint-Guibert. The company, launched in early 2018, now has about 150 employees and plans to increase this number to 200 by the end of 2022. Initially specializing in information, it now sells its own small observation satellites, 100% Belgian. “We mainly produced them for ourselves to provide the information our customers needed, but we quickly realized that we could sell them to external customers as well,” explains Benoît Depert, founder and CEO. “We remain a box that sells information through our own satellites, but is funded by funds and satellite sales.” Aerospacelab’s clients work in both the private and public sectors, such as ministries, agencies, the European Commission… “We are asked to provide information in the field of security, defense, agriculture… And also in the field of logistics or monitoring world markets…”
Satellite giant in Charleroi
The satellite business is also growing impressively. By the end of the year, the first plant in New Luvan should be producing about 24 satellites a year, and construction on a second, much larger plant in Charleroi began a few weeks ago. It will be one of the largest in the world for this type of transmission. Following the model of automakers, the basic structures are built on the line and adjusted to the customer’s wishes, in a few years there should be 500 satellites assembled there every year, as soon as it works. “We are moving from an old-fashioned development mode, completely dependent on government agencies, to something more iterative, more flexible,” comments the boss. We can work on smaller projects than before, the entry threshold is lower… We can work without subcontractors, completely in-house. This removes many barriers to productivity. What’s more, every time we need external skills, we end up internalizing them.” According to Benoit Depert, the Belgian space industry is doing well but too often seems to lack ambition. “They are very good subcontractors who lack vision. Many of these companies work for larger contractors and are 100% supported by government money. But unfortunately, due to the lack of competition, it stagnates, and many very good engineers often get stuck in these patterns. Private investments impose deadlines, push for self-improvement, innovation…”
However, in terms of research and innovation, some Belgian projects stand out. On the side of the Gembloux Faculty of Agro-Biotechnology at the University of Liege, the Smart Gastronomy Laboratory studies food and its evolution from all angles. Last May, the lab entered into a partnership with ESA to develop food for astronauts. We wanted to know more, but covert protection: The European Agency asked them not to talk about this anymore. 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. Cause? The ESA believes that in the future it will be possible to grow it in space and therefore be able to be turned into food on shuttles and space stations. Examples presented at the time include pasta or a lentil and spirulina burger. The idea was to offer famous dishes that are a pleasure to eat, and not only a dose of vegetable protein, but also fresh produce, a rare thing in orbit that boosts morale.
The aim of the Gembloux researchers is to first develop prototype machines that will allow astronauts to cook these foods in space, but it will be some time before the ISS crew organizes a hamburger party. Finally, Belgium is also a breeding ground for aerospace talent. ESA is currently looking for its next astronauts. In February, after a first review of over 20,000 applications, 50 Belgians were still on the shortlist of 1,361 to succeed Dirk Frimuth and Frank De Winne. Not so bad for a small country. The lucky ones will be announced in the fall.