Britain Makes its Mark at Ministerial

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NAPLES, Italy — The British government’s role in the 20-nation European Space Agency (ESA) has been rewritten by Science Minister David Willetts.

While Germany and Belgium both arrived at the ESA ministerial conference here with slight increases in their budgets compared with the last conference in 2008, the British delegation in Naples had a clear government mandate for a 25 percent annual boost to its ESA spending over the next five years.

Freed from the late-night debates over launch vehicles — Britain is remaining out of all that — and largely spared the debate over funding of the international space station, Willetts could focus on enlarging Britain’s role in ESA’s telecommunications satellite work.

Looking well-rested and almost gleeful as his counterparts wore the strains of a lack of sleep, Willetts even found the time to help push through a compromise between France and Germany on international space station contributions.

Britain will be investing 20 million euros ($26 million) in ESA’s contribution to NASA’s Orion crew-transport vehicle. Europe is paying a total of about 455 million euros to develop a propulsion module for Orion and thereby pay its share of the space station’s common operating costs.

But it was more than telecommunications and the space station. At the end of the conference, which generated about 10.1 billion euros in new investment, Britain had overtaken Italy as ESA’s third-largest contributor.

According to German, French, Italian and British government calculations, Germany invested 2.6 billion euros here, ahead of France’s 2.3 billion euros. Britain’s 1.3 billion euros in commitments were just ahead of Italy’s nearly 1.2 billion euros.

ESA Director-General Jean-Jacques Dordain, who is French, said at a press briefing that he would now be speaking English for the rest of his days because of the British support.

Dordain was joking, but it is nonetheless true that ESA’s telecommunications directorate, now located at the agency’s European Space Research and Technology Centre in Noordwijk, Netherlands, will be decamping to Britain in recognition of London’s new profile at ESA.

Willetts said several of his counterparts here asked him the secret to winning such a big space-budget increase given the harsh government spending climate in Britain and elsewhere in Europe.

He said it was a simple demonstration of what space investment can mean to an economy over time, particularly in areas of commercial interest. He still doesn’t like launchers as an investment, however.

 

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