PARIS — The nomination of Brigitte Zypries as Germany’s new space program coordinator means the near-term future of Europe’s space sector — an industry as male-dominated as the average auto-repair shop — is now in the hands of three women.
Zypries will join Genevieve Fioraso of France and Maria Chiara Carrozza of Italy this year in determining whether Europe invests around 5 billion euros ($6.8 billion) in new launch vehicles and whether it signals its willingness to continue as a partner with the United States, Russia, Japan and Canada in the international space station.
Zypries, a former German justice minister, is now Germany’s aerospace coordinator in the Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy. Fioraso is France’s minister for higher education and research, and Carrozza is Italy’s minister of education, universities and research.
The meeting of the 20 governments of the European Space Agency in December in Luxembourg is ostensibly limited to the two topics of rockets and the space station, plus the financially less-complicated issue of ESA’s future relationship with the European Commission.
The three nations account for the vast majority of ESA spending on rockets and the space station. France pays some 50 percent of the government support for the Ariane 5 vehicle. Italy has a majority share in development of the newer Vega small-satellite launcher. Germany is Europe’s biggest space station financier.
With its presence in solid-rocket propulsion — four of Ariane 6’s five segments will be solid-fueled — Italian industry stands to gain enormously from the Ariane 6 program. But how much Italy is willing to pay for Ariane 6 development is unknown.
Also in question is whether the still-recovering Italian economy will support a reversal of Italy’s November 2012 decision to slash its contribution to the space station. Italy’s move was followed by France’s announcement that it would cap its station involvement.
Germany was left to pick up the slack and has made no secret about its displeasure. Whether it is a bargaining chip or a matter of resignation, German officials, including Zypries, now say they are not sure they will pursue the station work without more help from their neighbors.
Decisions made in Luxembourg on rocket development and space station contributions will have cascading effects on many other European government space efforts. France, Germany and Italy remain ESA’s biggest contributors, even if the British government’s recent space budget increase has now brought Britain to about even with Italy in ESA’s ranks.
But Britain has kept its renewed interest focused on selected areas, notably satellite telecommunications, and remains a bit player in Europe’s rocket and space station programs.
With Italy’s relative decline, it will be the Zypries-Fioraso face-off that will determine which scenario is the most likely for Europe’s civil government space effort in the coming years. Among the scenarios:
n Germany refuses more than a token immediate investment in Ariane 6, forcing France to carry 60 percent or more of the initial development costs, plus the expected 50 percent French share of the Ariane 5 upgrade, called Ariane 5 Mid-life Evolution (ME), with the resulting decline in French contributions to European science, telecommunications, Earth observation and other space programs.
n With Germany’s Ariane 6 support below what France views as acceptable, France slashes its space station financing to 2020 — this is the immediate issue next December — and turns aside any discussion of extending Europe’s role in the orbital facility to 2024.
Zypries made her first space policy declaration Jan. 23 before the German Aerospace Center, DLR, which is Germany’s space agency.
“Secure access to space, at the lowest possible cost,” is a goal shared by Germany, she said. “So far it has not been proven that this goal would be better reached with the new development of Ariane 6 than with the enhancement of Ariane 5,” the Ariane 5 ME.
Fioraso, in a Jan. 29 speech to France’s parliamentary space group, reiterated France’s determination to proceed with Ariane 6 as quickly as possible. She said France expected ESA to produce, by the end of March, a roadmap for Ariane 6 development with the design-to-cost objective following consultations with industry.
Unlike in earlier speeches, Fioraso acknowledged the Ariane 5 ME program’s value as a transition vehicle. “Ariane 5 ME should permit us to guarantee our competitiveness and minimize financial, employment, commercial and technical risks for the industry,” she said.
Left unsaid is that fact that Ariane 6 is expected to require one-third as many companies to maintain as Ariane 5 — 50 instead of 150 — and to require only one-half the workforce of 10,000 now involved with Ariane production in Europe and at the European spaceport in South America.
Since assuming her office in mid-2012, Fioraso has mentioned Ariane 5 ME only rarely and the space station even less. The station was absent again from her Jan. 29 speech.
As part of the November 2012 compromise between the French and German positions, ESA governments agreed to finance early work on Ariane 6, and to continue development of Ariane 5 ME and a larger program to create a common upper stage for the two vehicles.
European government and ESA officials estimate that a common cryogenic upper stage for Ariane 5 ME and Ariane 6 would save around 600 million euros over what it would cost to develop each separately. Current estimates are that a full-bore development program could produce an inaugural Ariane 6 launch in 2021-2022. Ariane 5 ME’s first flight could occur in 2018.
Fioraso said the competitiveness of the Arianespace launch consortium could not wait for new rockets and needed immediate improvement. She did not say how this might be accomplished, but said the French research and defense ministries — both have jurisdiction over the French space agency, CNES — are taking part in the discussion.
Zypries’ remarks to DLR on Jan. 23, meanwhile, offered fresh evidence that Germany is not willing to let the sagging support for the space station in France and Italy continue.
“I expect from our European partners that they commit themselves at the ministerial conference more strongly and accept their responsibility to return to the originally agreed-to shares of the cost” of the space station, Zypries said.
“The U.S. government has declared its readiness to support the extension of operations to 2024,” she said. “Whether Europe can participate in this will be the subject of discussions among the European partners. Our concern is that we in Europe achieve a more balanced distribution of the burden in the future than in the past.”
Fioraso said she and Zypries would start assembling a common position during a French-German ministerial council scheduled for Feb. 19 in Paris.