Profile | David Williams, President, European Space Agency Council; Chief Executive, U.K. Space Agency

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European Space Agency (ESA) governments will meet Nov. 20-21 in Naples, Italy, to set a multiyear program and budget for the 20-nation agency.

With many of its member states starting with Greece, Portugal and Spain in near-crisis public debt situations, ESA could have picked a better time to ask for space program financing.

But the meeting of ESA ministers is already a year later than planned at the last meeting, in 2008. Instead of canceling it, ESA has agreed to divide the meeting in two, with a second half occurring in about 18 months. The idea is that the financial stresses on ESA governments might have eased by then.

The strains on November’s meeting are not only financial. With less than three weeks before the conference opens, ESA’s biggest three contributors France, Germany and Italy still had not fully harmonized their positions on several programs that are too big to be shunted aside.

These include the direction of Europe’s launch vehicle development effort, ESA’s commitment to the international space station beyond 2017 and funding for science and Earth observation missions in the coming years.

David Williams will arrive in Naples with an unusual perspective. He will be coming from one island, Britain, before leaving for the larger island of Australia, where he has accepted the post of group executive for information sciences at Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO).

But in addition to leading the space agency of ESA’s fourth-largest contributor, Williams is president of the ESA Council at the agency level. It is mainly in that capacity that he recently spoke with SpaceNews staff writer Peter B. de Selding.

There appears to be a consensus that the Naples ministerial conference will only deal with certain subjects, with the rest to be left to a conference in 18 months. What subjects will be left to 2014?

It’s not really cutting it in two. It’s more about holding back on certain decisions that will not be ready for a full commitment in November. I expect the future launcher development to be one of these. And the future exploration program is another because this depends on ExoMars proceeding as planned, notably with the Russian involvement.

One topic will be ESA’s science program budget, one of the agency’s few mandatory programs. Will science be able to retain its buying power for the next three years?

The decision on these mandatory programs requires unanimity of all member states. In the absence of any other position, the way it works is that the default is to carry on funding at the 2013 baseline level without any compensation for inflation. In the U.K. we call this flat cash, and in the current economic climate it is seen as a good outcome. I expect this to be the position in ESA.

Just to be clear, that means a decline in purchasing power of about 3 percent per year given inflation, correct?

Yes, and this is not so bad given the current financial conditions in Europe. And of course industry could help by looking to make efficiency savings.

ESA’s multiyear Earth Observation Envelope Program, EOEP, funds the Explorer class of satellites. ESA is asking for 1.6 billion euros ($2.1 billion) over four years. Will these get support and what is the U.K. view?

EOEP gets a level of resources for a period of years and contains its level of activity within this resource limit. As such it is in many ways a quasi-mandatory program now.

The U.K. has for several months made it clear that the program should continue at the same level as it has been over the last four years. This is some 25 percent lower than the ESA proposal.

Europe’s Global Monitoring for Environment and Security, GMES, is presumably a European Union program, but ESA is managing construction of the Sentinel satellite series. GMES funding at the European Commission remains unclear. What is the status?

The future of GMES is largely in the hands of the European Union. If they include it in the next multiyear financial framework, which begins in 2014, then the program has a future. If it remains outside of the multiyear financial framework, GMES is effectively dead. This is because the EU has run the program as a proxy for European users and if they do not want it then by definition it is not needed for Europe.

There will need to be some serious discussion in ESA about its future role in GMES once the EU position is clear. Only at that time will the need for future developments beyond the Sentinel 5 satellite emerge. We are planning a contribution to GMES in the U.K., but this is targeted at specific technology development goals.

And GMES’s current status at the European Commission?

The latest rumors are that the EU will find a lower level of funding than originally set out, but that this will still provide for a viable program. This is a big step forward from a few months ago when it was outside the framework.

The problem is that any EU decision will not be finalized before November. It is important that the EU try to find a way to include funding in the multiyear financial framework, because the data sets are seen as a major European contribution to the global efforts in monitoring and managing our environment. With no funding the primary impression sent to the rest of the world is that the EU has no interest, and does not really care about the global environment.

This would be sad because it is not true but then, actions speak louder than words in the real world.

The so-called Barter Element between ESA and NASA, in which ESA pays its share of station operating costs to NASA not in cash but in mutually acceptable goods and services, is unresolved. Do you get involved in that?

The Barter Element is not an activity the U.K. has a role to play in because we do not fund the space station.

ExoMars is a two-launch mission to Mars with a lander and rover, with Russia’s Roscosmos now an indispensable partner once it confirms that it will provide the launch vehicles. But funding is still an issue on the ESA side. Your view?

ExoMars has over the last year or so had a problematic life. NASA’s pulling out was unhelpful, and in my personal view disappointing. I have struggled to understand it in terms of its real impact on the NASA budget over six years or so.

It is also a good example of how ESA can recover from adversity to ensure that a significant taxpayer-funded expenditure is not written off. The proposed solution involves some internal prioritization of finance within ESA, and a significant input from Russia, which is effectively replacing the U.S.

I do not think any ESA member state is particularly happy with the fact that such a significant upheaval in the program has been necessary. But all participating countries have agreed to the current mission structure and objectives, and in particular the addition of the soft lander in 2016 that did add costs to the mission.

ESA agreed to a three-year preliminary program on space situational awareness in 2008. Will there be a follow-on budget agreed to in Naples?

Space situational awareness in ESA terms is effectively space weather rather than space debris and conjunction analysis. The latter is now more closely embedded into the EU thinking.

Space weather is an important issue because of the potential impact of a major event on terrestrial systems and services. Satellites themselves are now much more robust in respect of solar weather.

The problem for all countries is that the system for satellite observing systems is largely driven by the science program and hence continuity is not a key driver of a system or its replacement. In Europe the development of ESA’s Solar Orbiter mission could be particularly timely, given the age of existing observing systems. Defining a long-term path is more important than making a rush decision in 2012.

Several nations, especially Germany, would like ESA to develop a lunar orbiter and lander as part of a space exploration package. How does the U.K. view this?

The U.K. has always been interested in lunar science. But with current budgetary constraints I do not see how we will be in a position to be involved in the current proposal. What happens in the future remains to be seen.

What are the biggest threats to the Naples ministerial conference as of today?

There are two. The first is the debate over whether to fund the Ariane 5 Midlife Evolution program or proceed to Ariane 6. The second is space station funding beyond 2017. Neither really involves the U.K., and it really is for France, Germany and, especially for the space station, Italy, to resolve the big picture.