The 22-nation European Space Agency in December will ask its governments to fund a broad suite of programs in science, Earth observation, telecommunications and exploration for the coming several years — even though it knows some of the proposals will be rejected out of hand.
ESA Director-General Jan Woerner said the agency always comes in with a wide list of initiatives that ultimately prove too costly for some member states.
Norway’s threat, and Britain’s foreign exchange issue
Of special concern this year is the threatened sharp reduction in Norway’s contribution to ESA’s optional program. Norwegian officials have talked about a possible 75-percent cut — a remarkable decision that Norwegian Space Agency officials are at pains to explain to their counterparts.
Also of concern is the British pound’s drop relative to the euro, which might reduce Britain’s ability to fund ESA missions. Britain in recent years has become a major ESA player in telecommunications and Earth observation.
More than 80 percent of ESA’s spending is from voluntary contributions from their member states. These nations review a program, evaluate the potential for their domestic industry, and determine how much to invest, knowing that 90 percent of their investment will return to their territory in the form of contracts to their national industry.
ESA has been chipping away at what is called “fair return” for years to make it more flexible, but it remains perhaps the most important glue binding 22 nations together.
The science program is the major exception to this rule. Science, not to be confused with exploration, is funded by mandatory contributions by each nation based on its gross domestic product. Woerner said he will be seeing a modest increase in the science budget.
For the Dec. 1-2 ministerial conference in Lucerne, Switzerland, ESA is asking for about 11 billion euros ($12 billion) to cover the agency’s activities over the next three to five years. Some of the funding would stretch out much beyond that.
Because this headline figure stretches over different periods, Woerner said it is not easy to read. “These numbers by themselves have no real meaning,” he said. “They cover different periods. What is most important for us is our annual budget of about 3.5 billion euros, plus funds from the European Commission.”
With Europe’s Ariane 6 rocket now fully funded and scheduled to launch starting in 2020, ESA will not need to present it to its ministers. But the multi-year funding of Europe’s Guiana Space Center spaceport, and the ongoing support for the Ariane 5 and Vega rockets, will be on the agenda.
Mars exploration and International Space Station funding
The two large-budget programs to be debated at the ministerial conference are likely to be the ExoMars exploration program with Russia and Europe’s continued participation in the International Space Station.
ESA is asking its governments for a final payment of 300 million euros to complete the ExoMars mission with Russia. The two-launch mission included a Mars orbiter, now in place around Mars; and an entry, descent and landing package that performed most of its work but crashed as it was closing in on the surface, apparently following a computer malfunction.
The second half of ExoMars includes a Russian landing package and a European rover to drill beneath the Mars surface in search of signs of life.
Government and industry officials say ExoMars is actually short 400 million euros, but that Woerner has agreed to absorb 100 million euros of that by trimming other programs at ESA.
Liar’s poker on International Space Station
Europe’s participation in the International Space Station depends on an agreement between Germany, France and Italy. In recent ministerial conferences, these three governments have occasionally suggested they no longer viewed ISS as a priority. Whether this reflected government policy or was only a way of extracting greater contributions from the other partners is unclear.
French officials routinely say their role in ISS depends in part on German enthusiasm.
Despite the launch of a French astronaut to the space station Nov. 17, France has been hesitant to commit to maintaining ISS funding to 2024, which is the proposal on the table at Lucerne.
As with ExoMars, the embarrassment of ending Europe’s participation in ISS before the United States, Russia, Japan and Canada is likely too great for ESA governments. While Europe’s ISS supporters are getting restive — what comes after ISS? How does ISS play into lunar or Mars exploration? — they are unlikely to walk away early.
Aschbacher on Earth observation
ESA’s Earth observation program is the agency’s biggest, accounting for 30.5 percent of its budget in 2016.
This year, the agency is presenting its fifth Earth Observation Envelope Program (EOEP), budgeted at 1.41 billion euros. To this is added some 200 million euros in operational programs, including a proposed public-private partnership with industry, called InCubed, and the Belgian-led Altius satellite for atmospheric sounding.
Other missions in EOEP-5 include the Earth Explorer missions Biomass (EE-7) and Flex (EE-8) environment-monitoring satellites and a proposed EE-9 mission yet to be decided.
ESA Earth Observation Director Josef Aschbacher said the ministers will be asked to sign off on EOEP-5 as a whole. “No cherry-picking,” he said. If the full funding complement is not available, then one or more of the proposed missions will need to be scrapped to fit within the confirmed funding commitments.
Aschbacher said ESA governments have endorsed the content of EOEP-5 but it will be complicated to secure all the necessary funds. For example, if no other major contributor joins Belgium for Altius, Belgium likely will divert resources from EOEP-5.
“Member states have told us we have a solid program,” Aschbacher said. “But there is certainly a chance we will not receive 100 percent of what we’re asking for.”
In that case, does he have a Plan B with a list of which missions to cut?
“No,” Aschbacher said. “If you have a Plan B, that means your Plan A is dead.”