PARIS — Lingering resentments between France and Germany over Europe’s launch vehicle and space station policy were on clear display Jan. 15 as officials from both nations sought to explain why they battled each other at a recent conference on long-term spending priorities.
The conclusions of the November conference of European Space Agency () governments in Naples, Italy, were deemed satisfactory by France and Germany, as neither got all of what it wanted.
French Research Minister Genevieve Fioraso, who led the French delegation to the conference, said here Jan. 15 that she left Naples exhausted after an all-night confrontation — with Germany, although she did not say so — about the station and the future of the Ariane rocket.
Addressing a space conference here organized by Euroconsult, Fioraso said she appreciated the late-night text messages she received from other French government officials — “messages saying, ‘Hold firm against’ you know who.”
Fioraso said she recently hosted a visit with Germany’s ambassador to France and the ambassador expressed German gratitude for the way the ministerial conference concluded.
France reluctantly agreed to fund further work on an Ariane 5 upgrade called Ariane 5 ME. Just as reluctantly, France agreed to fund a further two years of operations of Europe’s share of the international space station, including work with the United States on the Orion crew transport vehicle, pending an agreement in 2014 on the station’s annual operating cost.
Germany agreed to make a token investment in designing an Ariane 5 successor, called Ariane 6, and to delay final approval of Ariane 5 ME until 2014, the year when France hopes to win approval for full-scale Ariane 6 development.
“We agreed to some costly compromises,” said Rolf Densing, director of space programs at the German Aerospace Center, DLR. “For launch vehicles we are taking two routes, and depending on how we follow up, we may have wasted some money.”
Densing said Germany is frustrated that its ESA partners in the international space station appear to be reconsidering their support for the orbital complex.
“We in Europe have spent around 7.5 billion euros ($10 billion) on the international space station so far, and 40 percent of that is German taxpayer money. We don’t think we can abandon the station, even though it is expensive. The less loyal others are to it, the higher the burden will be on us.”
Densing said Germany looks forward to the day when ESA ministerial conferences focus on investments that stimulate demand for space services rather than continued investment in infrastructure programs.
Ultimately, he said, buying launch vehicles and satellites will be like buying automobiles, and ESA should focus on more cutting-edge technologies that fuel European industrial competitiveness.
Joel Barre, deputy director for operations at the French space agency, CNES, said France was satisfied that the Naples conference approved funding for Ariane 6 design work, and agreed that the Ariane 5 ME and Ariane 6 should share a common upper stage.
On the international space station, Barre said France in principle is ready to approve continued European participation through 2020, as the partners have agreed. But he said European nations have yet to determine the station’s annual operating costs and how these are to be allocated among individual ESA nations.
“International cooperation cannot last long if it is unbalanced,” Barre said. “This is also true within Europe. France is ready to pursue its participation in the space station to 2020, provided we are able to master the cost of it. We are also hoping for more balance between Europe and the United States. Work on the [Orion] vehicle could serve to redirect the [U.S.-European] cooperation toward a more balanced relationship as we move toward a space exploration program.”
Europe’s share of the Orion vehicle that NASA is designing is part of its financial obligation to NASA to pay Europe’s 8 percent share of the station’s common operating costs through 2020. But Orion is a space exploration vehicle intended primarily for destinations beyond the international space station.
“If we want a real international space exploration program in the future, we need a more balanced decision-making process,” Barre said.