Operating Cost Cuts Help CNES to Triple Spending on Research, Flight Demos

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PARIS — The French space agency, CNES, has tripled its investment in research and technology projects and flight demonstrators in the past seven years in part by reinvesting savings from cutting CNES’s overall operating costs, CNES President Yannick d’Escatha said Feb. 4.

In 2013, the agency expects to spend nearly 18 percent of its total budget, not including spending at the European Space Agency, on developing new technologies and flying demonstration payloads. The nearly 132 million euros ($178 million) compares with just 42.3 million euros spent on these activities in 2003, when research and technology accounted for 6 percent of the budget, according to CNES figures.

The technology and demonstrator budget also has been helped by a French government public bond issue that reserved several hundred million euros for CNES-managed projects in future launch vehicles and satellite designs. That bond issue is expected to fund nearly 66 million euros in future-studies work at CNES in 2013, according to CNES figures published Feb. 4 during the agency’s presentation of its 2013 work plan.

The increased spending is directly linked to steady reductions in CNES’s overall operating costs. The French government has permitted the agency to invest these savings into what is now a large backlog of projects that are then evaluated to determine which ones move from design to development, and eventually to flight.

D’Escatha, who is retiring in March after 10 years at CNES, has made the technology-demonstrator pipeline a showcase of how he thinks research organizations like CNES should operate. He said the agency is reviewing 29 projects currently in early design phase, including 11 that have been added only recently.

Another 16 projects have cleared the first evaluation to move to Phase A work, which is the last step before they move to industry or laboratories for further development before construction.

CNES has reduced its operating costs at the Guiana Space Center spaceport in French Guiana, on the northeast coast of South America, by about 14 percent in the past 10 years, in part by encouraging regular competitions among prospective contractors.

The cost cutting has continued even as the spaceport has moved from single-product status — the Ariane 5 ECA heavy-lift rocket — to a center with three launch pads operating the medium-lift Soyuz and light-class Vega vehicles alongside Ariane 5.

CNES documents say the spaceport’s fixed costs, adjusted to 2009 economic conditions, have dropped from about 146 million euros in 2002 to 126.5 million euros today despite the additional work operating three rockets at three launch installations.

The Guiana Space Center counts some 1,650 employees, 75 percent of them local hires as opposed to Europe-based personnel on temporary assignment.

Including the center’s personnel, some 9,000 jobs are now directly or indirectly supported by the launch business at the Guiana Space Center — 15 percent of the total employment in French Guiana, which is a French Overseas Territory with a legal status similar to that of a region in France.

CNES and the French government continue to invest in ways to diversify the economy of French Guiana away from its dependence on space and French government jobs. CNES shares in this investment.

D’Escatha said CNES has invested nearly 85 million euros since 2000 in French Guiana, and that this has generated 160 million euros of economic activity and more than 3,500 stable jobs not involved in the space sector.

CNES’s overall in-house operating costs have dropped 5 percent in the past three years, to 150 million euros expected in 2013. The agency has been reluctant to make more than small reductions to its overall employment, which is now around 2,400 people, despite the synergies it has been able to achieve by establishing joint teams with the European Space Agency, and despite the fact that French industry is capable of performing some of the tasks still part of CNES’s portfolio.