ESA Says It Is on Track To Reduce Its Station Costs by 30 Percent

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PARIS — The European Space Agency (ESA) says that by late 2015, if not earlier, it will reduce its annual space station operating costs by 30 percent compared with 2010.

But the agency declined to provide details on where the savings would come from, what the total cost reduction will be and what effect they will have on science and industrial research at the international space station.

The agency also refused to confirm figures released by Europe’s space station prime contractor, Airbus Defence and Space, the former Astrium, on the cost of station operations through 2014.

“No comment on financial figures; no comment on the remark by [Airbus],” ESA said in a written response to SpaceNews inquiries dated Dec. 18. “The reduction of 30 percent compared to 2010 is supposed to be achieved by the end of 2015 at the latest. This target will be met.”

ESA is under pressure from its member states, especially Italy and France, to reduce the cost of operating the Columbus laboratory module, one of Europe’s primary contributions to the orbital outpost. Ten of ESA’s 20 member governments are supporting the station, which features similar laboratory and habitation modules provided by Japan, Russia and the United States. The last time they met to review the project, France and Italy — ESA’s second- and third-largest station contributors after Germany — said they could no longer maintain their previous support levels, forcing Germany to make up the difference.

ESA has access to 51 percent of Columbus’ capacity, which is equivalent to about 5.3 percent of the station’s total experiment space, including external racks. NASA controls the remaining 49 percent of Columbus’ experiment space.

ESA is paying NASA, which is the station’s general contractor, in services rather than cash to cover Europe’s 8.3 percent share of the common station resources — power, communications and astronaut time among them — available to the United States, Japan, Europe and Canada. Russia’s space station resources are managed separately. 

Europe’s annual obligation to NASA is equivalent to about 150 million euros ($200 million). 

ESA’s latest barter deal with NASA is to provide at least one flight model, plus spares, of a propulsion system for NASA’s Orion crew transport vehicle.

For the remaining charges, ESA has been negotiating two-year rolling contracts with Airbus. The first was signed in December 2011 but covered calendar years 2011 and 2012, and was valued at 233 million euros.

While ESA and Airbus did not sign their commitments until December 2011, they had agreed early that year on an Authorization to Proceed that limits the agency’s liability to a fixed amount but permits work to begin without the formal contract signature.

At the time the December 2011 contract was signed, ESA officials said cost reductions were already in place for station operations during 2012, and that each succeeding year would witness further reductions until the 30 percent target was reached.

Airbus, which until Jan. 1 was operating under the Astrium name, on Dec. 16 said it had signed a new two-year commitment with ESA, this one covering 2013 and 2014, and valued at 195 million euros.

Airbus said the figure includes 44 million euros for spare-parts procurement and development of procedures “to maintain and improve the functional aspects of the European Columbus space laboratory.”

ESA’s statement said it would be “misleading” to compare the two contracts’ top-line values because they cover different elements, and that the 30 percent reduction is only in costs associated with “core tasks of operations, and not spare parts and system development.” 

The latest two-year contract assumes, as did the previous one, that Europe remains a full space station partner through 2020, which is the tentative station retirement date. The station partners, led by NASA and Russia, are currently examining what would be required, in spare parts that may no longer be in production and in other station-maintenance issues, to operate the orbital complex to 2027.

Under the ESA contract, Airbus is responsible for training astronauts for certain functions at the Columbus module, and for procuring spare parts and financing the ground infrastructure needed to operate the Columbus laboratory. 

Airbus also maintains the station’s ground network, with major operations in Germany and France, and oversees the communications links allocated to Europe.

Airbus is managing about 40 companies in the 10 nations participating in Europe’s space station program.

Bart Reijnen, head of orbital systems and space exploration at Airbus Defence and Space, said the industrial team “will be able to meet the target of reducing costs by 30 percent in 2014, rather than in 2016 as originally planned. We have made considerable efforts to reduce costs, while maintaining the accustomed high level of service.”

 

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