Jean-Jacques Dordain. Credit: ESA

PARIS — The director-general of the European Space Agency (ESA), rejecting a criticism leveled by the European Commission, said the agency’s convention referring to “peaceful uses only” no more limits ESA’s ability to conduct military space activities than the United Nations Outer Space Treaty constrains that treaty’s signatories, which include the United States and Russia.

Jean-Jacques Dordain, in testimony to the U.K. Parliament’s Science and Technology Committee, said the 20-nation agency is capable of performing defense and security work for the European Commission or other European governments without changing its convention or its membership.

The 1967 U.N. Outer Space Treaty makes several references to space as being for “peaceful purposes,” as does ESA’s founding document. Just as treaty signatories have been able to conduct military space work in the 46 years since the document was signed, Dordain suggested, ESA is capable of taking on more security- and defense-related projects.

The British parliamentary report on space activities was published Oct. 28. One of its themes is the future relationship between ESA and the executive commission of the 28-nation European Union (EU).

The commission has suggested that it should assume more control over ESA in part because of ESA’s limits with respect to security and defense — areas that the commission-owned Galileo navigation constellation and Copernicus Earth observation programs cover in part.

The commission said in particular that ESA’s having two non-EU nations as members — Norway and Switzerland — could pose problems if ESA were tasked with performing EU-contracted military space work.

The commission and ESA have promised their member states that they would find a better way of working together, but it was clear from the U.K. report that Britain does not want to see ESA taken over by the European Commission.

“We recommend that the government resists attempts by the European Commission to bring the European Space Agency under its control,” concludes the parliamentary report, called “Work of the European And UK Space Agencies.”

Several space science organizations in Britain submitted testimony saying they too are opposed to tinkering with ESA’s status on behalf of a different ESA-European Commission relationship. 

The parliamentarians specifically proposed that Sir Mark Walport, the British government’s chief scientific adviser, meet with Anne Glover, the chief scientific adviser to the European Commission’s president, to deliver the message.

David Willetts, Britain’s minister for universities and science, who has responsibility for British space spending, told the committee that “there is some tension at the moment, which I regret,” between ESA and the European Commission.

“I think it can be resolved; I see a way forward,” Willetts said. “We do not want to see the EU in some sense taking over ESA. Some of the [European Commission] criticisms and anxieties about accountability … were misplaced. I think they were trying to invent problems that were not there.”

U.K. Space Agency Chief Executive David Parker, referring to a European Commission document released in late 2012 that appeared to call for ESA to be put under commission tutelage, said of the commission’s arguments: “We think they are over-egged red herrings.”

Dordain said ESA would like to see the commission enter into a relationship similar to what ESA has with Darmstadt, Germany-based Eumetsat, Europe’s meteorological satellite organization.

Eumetsat tells ESA what performance it needs for future satellites. ESA then builds to those specifications and finances the first spacecraft. Eumetsat then takes over the program, building the future satellites of the same generation and operating the system.

Dordain said having the commission exercise control that includes the prototype spacecraft could be problematic.

“My biggest fear is that the rules of the European Commission are opening the call for proposals beyond the borders of Europe,” Dordain said. “The European Commission cannot restrict the invitation to tender to European industry.

“It was a big debate on Galileo. I went to the commission and said: ‘If I am asked to make Galileo by purchasing parts in China, a satellite platform in India and a payload in the United States, I have a much cheaper way to make Galileo: Use GPS for free. If Galileo is to finance non-European industry, then it is totally useless.’

“It took some time to convince the European Union to restrict the ITT [invitation to tender for Galileo contracts] to European industry.”

Dordain said of the Galileo positioning, navigation and timing project, managed by ESA on the technical side and the EU Commission as the system’s owner: “I would prefer it if [the commission] leaves us to make the Galileo satellites as we want, rather than tell us how to make a Galileo satellite.”

Follow Peter on Twitter: @pbdes

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