France is Reducing Its Space Station Contributions

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PARIS — France is reducing its contributions to the international space station following an assessment that its current payments are much higher than the station-related contracts received by French industry, the French space agency, CNES, said.

In its quarterly publication, CNESMag, the agency says it confronted substantial resistance from Germany when it insisted on payment reductions during the late-November conference of European Space Agency (ESA) government ministers in Naples, Italy.

“This posed big problems for our German friends and constituted the major sticking point of the negotiations” during the ministerial conference, the agency says. “But we were able to achieve our objectives, cutting our contribution by 82 million euros ($111 million), with our percentage share dropping to 20.8 percent from 27.1 percent.”

Officials from the German space agency, DLR, have complained that the reductions on the part of France — which had been second to Germany in station backing — and of Italy, the station’s third-largest European supporter, mean Germany will be shouldering a larger load in the coming years to make up the difference. That will reduce DLR’s ability to finance non-station-related programs.

ESA governments have tentatively decided to continue participating in the space station through 2020, along with NASA, Russia, Japan and Canada. Europe owes some 8.3 percent of the station’s annual operating costs, which up to now have been paid not in cash but through regular flights to the station of Europe’s Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) cargo transporter.

ESA has decided to cease ATV production after the fifth vehicle, scheduled to fly in 2015, which will acquit ESA of its station operating-cost operations dues until 2017. For the payments between 2018 and 2020 — a sum estimated to total 455 million euros — ESA and NASA have agreed that Europe will provide the propulsion module for at least one of NASA’s Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicles.

France had wanted ESA and NASA to agree to a French-proposed alternative that would have begun trans-Atlantic development of a vehicle that ultimately could have performed active debris cleanup in low Earth orbit. That idea was shelved, in part because “Germany absolutely wanted” the Orion agreement, CNES says.

CNES’s agreement with ESA was that France’s station contribution will be capped at 275 million euros for the two-year period 2013-2014 — 20.86 percent of the total ESA program — with constant annual payments through 2021, according to the ESA document summarizing the agency’s ministerial agreements. Similarly, the French role in Orion will be limited to 20 percent of the 455 million-euro program, according to ESA. CNES says it will review its Orion role at the next ESA ministerial conference, now scheduled for mid-2014.

“The funding mechanism in force since 1995, and in particular the scale of our contribution, would have led us to pay much too much in the coming years given the participation of our industry,” CNES says in explaining its decision.