Jean-Jacques Dordain. Credit: ESA

PARIS — The hierarchy of contributors to the European Space Agency (ESA) was reshuffled during November’s conference of ESA governments. Italy, Spain and Sweden are down, Britain is up and Belgium has lost its title as ESA’s top supporter relative to its national gross domestic product (GDP), ESA Director-General Jean-Jacques Dordain said Jan. 15.

The new leader, measured as a percentage of its GDP, is Luxembourg. Until a few years ago, Luxembourg viewed ESA with benign neglect even as it supported the growth of satellite fleet operator SES, which is owned in part by the Luxembourg government and has become the world’s second-largest commercial fleet operator by revenue.

More recently, Intelsat — the world’s largest commercial operator — moved its legal headquarters to Luxembourg.

The new contributor ranking is forcing European space contractors to reassess their strategies, notably in telecommunications. Thales Alenia Space of France and Italy in particular will have to address the rise of Britain, perhaps by creating or purchasing a U.K. presence, Thales Alenia Space Chief Executive Jean-Loic Galle said Jan. 15.

“Italy and Spain are suffering economically” and have reduced some of their space spending, Galle said here during a space policy conference organized by Euroconsult. “For us, this raises questions. We will certainly need to redouble our efforts in Germany. It also raises questions to the French government, which has invested in satellite telecommunications and now will have to determine how to keep this expertise from moving to other nations.”

Galle said he is confident that the British government will encourage the development of industrial capabilities within its borders to prevent Astrium Satellites from becoming a de facto monopoly. Galle said OHB AG of Germany, which has a large presence in Italy but none in Britain, is in a similar position.

Astrium Satellites would appear to be among the big beneficiaries of Britain’s increased ESA presence. Astrium Satellites has a large British satellite-production facility and owns British small-satellite specialist Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd., making it a logical beneficiary of an increase in Britain’s telecommunications funding.

Dordain said Luxembourg’s commitments at the November conference in Naples, Italy, have vaulted it ahead of Belgium when using the GDP measure.

Luxembourg’s 3.2 percent of GDP surpasses Belgium’s 2.2 percent and France’s 1.5 percent at the 20-nation ESA, Dordain said, adding that what he calls the “Luxembourg anomaly” is mainly dedicated to telecommunications programs.

Dordain said he used to refer to the “British anomaly” in evoking Britain’s relatively small ESA presence relative to the nation’s status as Europe’s third-biggest economy.

That anomaly ended in November when the British government announced its ESA contribution would increase by 25 percent starting this year, with the figure remaining constant through 2017.

That commitment would put Britain’s annual ESA investment at about 300 million euros ($400 million), which would appear to move it ahead of Italy as ESA’s third-largest contributor. ESA has agreed to move the headquarters of its telecommunications directorate to Britain in recognition of the nation’s new importance to the agency.

France and Germany each contribute more than 750 million euros to ESA each year. Germany has been raising its ESA funding in the past several years. Depending on how the count is done, Germany has overtaken France as ESA’s overall biggest supporter.

Augusto Cramarossa, director of strategy and international relations at the Italian Space Agency, ASI, said that while Italy’s contributions to the international space station have dropped by about 50 percent, its total ESA posture should be enough to keep it in third position ahead of Britain.

Cramarossa said Italy remains a supporter of the international space station but that it has not received promised contracts in return for its investment. Under ESA’s geographic-return rules, nations are typically guaranteed to receive 90 percent of their contributions in the form of contracts to their domestic industry.

Italy, Cramarossa said, has not received contracts at anywhere near this level, and the result is an “under-return” of 100 million euros during the past 10 years. “What we did was recalculate our contribution so that it is in line with our industrial return,” he said.

Cramarossa said Italy is perhaps the only ESA member to have committed to Europe’s space station program through 2020, and has taken a 20 percent stake in ESA’s contribution to NASA’s Orion multipurpose crew-transport vehicle.



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Peter B. de Selding was the Paris Bureau Chief for SpaceNews.