PARIS — The head of the German Aerospace Center, DLR, said Jan. 24 he is confident that NASA has made “a fundamental change in its thinking” about international partnerships and is ready to let Europe build all future propulsion modules for NASA’s Orion crew-transport vehicle.

He also said Germany will keep an open mind about the future European Ariane 6 vehicle, whose early design work is beginning, despite lingering doubts about whether it can be financed given European governments’ budget crises. “In our view, Ariane 6 is an adventure that we don’t know how to finance,” DLR Chairman Johann-Dietrich Woerner said in a conference call with journalists.

Woerner said Germany never would have accepted the Orion work-share arrangement recently concluded between NASA and the 20-nation European Space Agency (ESA) unless it thought NASA and the U.S. government were prepared to make ESA’s contribution a permanent feature of Orion.

“The point is not whether we get funding from NASA for European industry,” Woerner said. “The point is the larger cooperation between Germany and NASA — between Europe and NASA — on space exploration. I have spoken to NASA people about this, and I have spoken to some members of [the U.S.] Congress. Is there a risk? Will U.S. industry fight this? Yes, but we have opened the door to future cooperation and we hope that door leads to more cooperation.”

ESA has agreed to spend some 455 million euros ($600 million) to build a full propulsion and service module for Orion’s second flight — the first with a service module — planned for 2017, with the contract producing spare parts that could be used on a crewed flight in 2021.

This is money that ESA owed NASA in any event to pay for ESA’s 8.3 percent share of the operating costs of the international space station between 2017 and 2020.

As currently structured, the barter agreement ends after the first Orion service module. NASA officials have said no decision has been made about what comes later.

ESA officials hope conventional business logic prevails for future Orion service modules. Under this logic, the nonrecurring engineering costs associated with the initial service module will be absorbed by the European team, making future European-built modules less expensive than they would be if the work were transferred to a U.S. contractor.

Keeping the same industrial team in place would maximize these economies, even if NASA is retaining all the necessary intellectual property rights that would be needed in the event it decides that U.S. industry — Lockheed Martin Space Systems of Denver is Orion’s prime contractor — should replace the Europeans.

Germany’s role in Europe’s share of the international space station is more important than ever with the recent decision by ESA governments on space station funding. Italy and Spain reduced their contributions. France expressed only tepid support for the station. It was left to Germany to pick up the slack.

The final figures: Of the nearly 1.1 billion euros collected from ESA nations to operate the station for the next two years, Germany is contributing 50 percent.

Woerner said the German government “is not happy with this situation” but that Germany felt obligated to step in with more support given the position of other ESA governments. He said the German delegation to the ESA ministerial conference in November in Naples, Italy, had been given specific instruction not to let its share of station spending get beyond 40 percent.

To assure the station’s funding at a minimal level, the German delegation in the end agreed to put in more funds than it wanted.

“We now have to ask ourselves the question: Is this still a European project?” Woerner said. “For us, the station and the barter element with NASA should be a European project. We are convinced that the ESA conference came to the right decision, but we are not happy that we are at 50 percent.”

ESA government support for the station has not been easy to secure. The agency has not yet formally committed to maintaining its membership in the station partnership beyond 2015. The Orion agreement notwithstanding, ESA has secured funding for station operations only for the next two years.

Woerner said Germany would like ESA to focus more on experiments and technologies and less on infrastructure projects like the station and the Ariane rockets. Given the additional money needed by Germany for the station, he said he is not certain that Germany will be able to take a significant role in the Italian-led Vega small-satellite launcher.

Vega currently uses a Ukrainian upper stage and Germany at the November ESA conference agreed to take a small part of Vega with a view to having German industry replace the Ukrainian stage. That now looks less likely, Woerner said. “We do not want to spend all our money on launchers, so we are hesitant to enter Vega,” he said.

Germany and France battled about the future of the Ariane heavy-lift rocket at the Naples conference until a compromise was reached. The upgraded Ariane 5 Midlife Evolution (ME) program would continue, with ESA governments agreeing to finance 470 million euros in work for the next two years. Some 930 million euros more are needed to carry the Ariane 5 ME program to its conclusion, a demonstration flight in 2017 or 2018.

ESA governments also agreed to spend 157 million euros — with France accounting for 73 percent of the total — on early Ariane 6 design work. French and ESA backers of Ariane 6 said the vehicle’s full development would be voted on in 2014.

Woerner said DLR would not try to scuttle the Ariane 6 program but that it remains a question as to its future funding. ESA governments will meet in mid-2014 to answer that question.



Pact Puts ESA on ‘Critical Path’ for Second Orion Mission

Germany Wins Battle over Ariane, ESA Space Station Role

DLR Chief Says French-German Study Favors Ariane 5 Upgrade over Ariane 6

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