European Space Agency governments meet Dec. 1-2 to determine whether, among their 20 members, there is enough financial backing for some 9 billion euros ($11.3 billion) in proposed spending on next-generation rockets, continued use of the international space station and Europe’s ExoMars mission including a rover.

A recent agreement by Germany to align with France and Italy in a future Ariane 6 rocket solved one big problem. But with the German-French Ariane 6 issue settled at least in principle, the hard negotiations begin on who can pay how much.

All but forgotten in the German-French dispute was that Italy is having financial issues of its own. Italy leads the ExoMars mission and has made it a topmost priority to come away from the ESA ministerial conference in Luxembourg with the 200 million euros needed to complete ExoMars development.

Italy is also a majority shareholder in ESA’s Vega small-satellite launcher, whose modernization is being tied to the Ariane 6 vehicle through the common use of a 120,000-kilogram solid-propellant stage to be used on both rockets.

Finally, Italy is Europe’s third-largest space station contributor, after Germany and France. Germany is now demanding that Italy, which lowered its station contributions in 2012, return to previous funding levels to assure Europe’s continued use of the facility.

Thales Alenia Space of France and Italy recently signaled its concern that Italian space financing did not appear to be sufficient to maintain Italy’s roles in all the above programs, while paying for a second-generation Cosmo-SkyMed radar Earth observation satellite system.

In a Nov. 24 briefing with SpaceNews staff writer Peter B. de Selding and others, Italian Space Agency President Roberto Battiston said the Thales concerns were legitimate, but overblown. He outlined Italy’s position going into the ministerial conference, and the status of Cosmo-SkyMed.

Do France, Germany and Italy all agree on Ariane 6?

Yes, and everyone should be happy about this. Italy is certainly happy with it. I am a relative newcomer but I understand the discussion on Ariane 6 has been going on for more than two years.

In the last two months, I witnessed a real evolution — from divergent designs to a coherent family of launchers, including Vega, which is a big success for everybody. And now I suppose you want the numbers.

Do you have them?

I can’t give them to you because in fact they will not be known until our final negotiations at the Luxembourg ministerial conference. 

Industry’s concern is that you did not win approval for a budget supplement of 200 million euros per year for three years. Is this the case?

This statement is a bit imprecise. The amendment was mainly successful and foresees the funds for the ministerial for the coming six years. The 200 million per year was for four major activities: three to be dealt with by ESA — launchers, the space station and ExoMars. Two others are the second-generation Cosmo-SkyMed and a new strategic plan for small high-technology satellites.

The amendment succeeded for the ESA ministerial elements — the space station, ExoMars and launchers. This has been passed by the government’s finance committee and is part of the package that is now on the floor of the parliament. It will take a few weeks more to pass, but this is an important achievement.

How much money is in this package?

740 million euros over six years. It will be approved by parliament sometime in December, as happens every year. But this amendment is part of the package — that’s the important thing.

How does the 740 million euros divide between the various components?

Again, this will be known only after the ministerial council negotiations.

The German space minister said Italy has informally approved returning to its previous space station support level of 19 percent. Is that so?

We are discussing with Germany and France and the other partners how to make a single package out of ISS, plus ExoMars plus launchers. Each government has its special needs. Each country is calling the others asking for pledges to solve specific problems. 

Everybody knows that for the launchers it’s France and for ISS it’s Germany. For Italy, it’s ExoMars but also launchers given our Vega involvement, and the ISS too. This is the package to be discussed in Luxembourg.

As you head to Luxembourg for the ESA conference, would you say Italy has sufficient financing to cover these programs?

 This was exactly the discussion we had Nov. 24 at the ESA council meeting. The topics on the table start with ESA’s proposed launcher spending corridor of a bit less than 800 million euros per year for 10 years, with a checkpoint in 2016. This is a major part of the cake, of course. Italy is interested in that because of the P120 Vega motor program, to be used for Vega’s upgrade and for Ariane 6; plus the upgraded Vega C rocket.

What we have now is a family of European vehicles tied together: the Ariane 6 in its 62 and 64 versions, plus the Vega C.

On ISS, we are carefully looking to see how to increase our share. But we have to make sure ExoMars gets funded. We have a 35 percent contribution to that program and we cannot consider a situation where this is not solved at the ministerial. The ExoMars 2016 mission is fully covered; the 2018 is still missing some money.

But is your goal a return to 19 percent of ESA’s ISS program?

Yes, we want to increase this share, which is now 7-8 percent. We take this challenge seriously.

Italy has to defend several things at the same time. Just as ISS is important for Germany, ExoMars is particularly important for us. We invested a huge amount of money in the past in the space station. But the current financing will be mainly used for ISS operations, so we need to be careful about geographic return [ESA’s policy of guaranteeing 90 percent of a nation’s investment in a program comes back in the form of industrial contracts].

We cannot go back to where it was in the past with a 70 percent return. This cannot be allowed. Now we are about 90 percent and we need to see how to go forward. But our willingness to increase our share to get as close as possible to the level of 19 percent is still on the table.

Vega C, the upgraded version of the Italian-led Vega small-satellite launcher, will be included in the launcher funding decided at the ministerial?

Yes, the launcher funding corridor of nearly 8 billion includes a number of things. The first is the basic operations of Ariane 5, Vega and Soyuz, operations in Kourou [Europe’s spaceport in French Guiana]. This totals 40 or 45 percent of the total.

The second piece is Ariane 6 development, P-120 development for Ariane 6 and Vega, and work on Vega C. We decided [at the Nov. 24 council] that these three programs all must win financial commitments of around 90 percent before any of them will be approved. If one fails the others cannot start. It is really a family of launchers. This is challenging because we have to adjust the contribution among the different countries.

There are issues that remain. Germany is now fully on board for Ariane 6 but the level of its contribution to it, at least in the short term, is still unknown.

The German space minister said she did not want to commit in advance to the presumed 20 percent German contribution to the launcher program.

 So at least for the next few months, there is an issue that calls for certain levels of contribution and Germany’s level is not clear. 

What is your current funding level of Vega?

It’s about 50-55 percent and the idea is that it will stay at that level. 

What about Germany replacing Ukraine as Vega’s upper-stage builder?

These things will take more time. Italy has asked that the proposed funding corridor include the evolutionary part of Vega C and Ariane 6. So this package is not the end of the story; it is the start of a new European capability of access to space. We need evolutions of Ariane 6 and Vega, including methane-fueled motors — whatever it takes for higher-performance vehicles. 

The focus now is ensuring that Ariane 62 and 64 will be operational in 2020, and Vega C in 2018. But the evolution of these vehicles is part of the program.

The Ariane 6 business model assumes that European governments will launch five times per year using the rocket, and that industry gets no price support for its commercial launches. What happens if European governments don’t provide five launches of Ariane 6 per year? Does industry’s commitment remain?

I am not paid enough to answer this question! Of course it is important. With 8 billion euros being spent on rockets over 10 years, you expect uncertainties. 

What about your national Cosmo-SkyMed 2 radar satellite program?

Discussions are ongoing. I made it clear when I arrived at this job that we’re supporting Cosmo-SkyMed through the end of the year and into the spring. I have made the government aware of the resources needed to continue with this. There are discussions going on full-time to find a solution.

I understand the nervousness of some in industry. But the Italian system is working on how to move forward with Cosmo-SkyMed.

Under our recent three-year ASI program, even without new funding, Cosmo-SkyMed progresses. It may be one satellite at a time, not two, or proceed at a lower speed. But even in the worst scenario it continues.

We now plan two satellites, with launches in 2017 and 2018. There are various ways of stretching it out. The current four satellites are operating well but are beyond their warranty period. We’ll need to increase their number or replace one or more of them. We don’t want to lose our position as a leader in radar Earth observation.

Vega prime contractor Avio’s ownership remains unsettled after more than two years. What effect has this had on Vega discussions?

No effects. Avio’s configuration was the same over 10 years and Vega has launched three times, with 12 more launches to come and already purchased. Was this related to the Avio ownership issue?

No, but doesn’t the government want to know whether French or German or Italian interests will own Avio before investing more into Vega?

The Italian government has already put a lot of money into Avio. Now we are selling Vega in batches of 10; it’s a success — a winning team, no doubt about it. Italy, U.K., the better is worse than the good.

Who will agree to help fund what’s needed to complete ExoMars?

There have been statements by the U.K. and Spain, there’s a big potential in Germany and France and Italy, too. But this is a discussion we need to have in Luxembourg.

At the last ministerial conference in late 2012, ministers were forced to spend an entire night, no sleep, before arriving at a compromise the next day. Can this be avoided in Luxembourg?

Everyone wants everyone to be happy. But these ministerial meetings are not holiday parties.

Twitter: @pbdes


Peter B. de Selding was the Paris bureau chief for SpaceNews.