G erman Chancellor Angela Merkel has endorsed a multi year increase in German space spending and reiterated the government’s support for the international space station program, saying basic research done there cannot be expected to yield results in the short term.
In the kind of speech that Germany’s and Europe’s space industry has been waiting years to hear, the German chancellor said here May 2 that the long slide in German technology spending, including space-based research, was over.
“In the past years, and even decades, technology has not been appreciated at its fair value, especially in a nation like Germany. This needs to be changed,” Merkel said in an address to mark the handover of Europe’s Columbus habitable module from the prime contractor, EADS Space Transportation, to the European Space Agency (ESA).
ESA will ship the laboratory to Florida’s Kennedy Space Center May 29. The structure and its payload complement will be tested for four months before being placed into storage. Seven months before its launch aboard a U.S. space shuttle, a final battery of tests and flight preparations will begin.
The Columbus manufacturing contract with a 40-company industrial consortium led by EADS Space Transportation and Alcatel Alenia Space was signed in 1996, with the laboratory scheduled for launch in 2002. The schedule has since been subject to the shuttle’s gradual return to regular flights after the loss of the shuttle Columbia in 2003. European government and industry officials said that, assuming a successful shuttle launch in July, Columbus could be placed into orbit in September 2007.
During her address, Merkel turned to NASA Deputy Administrator Shana Dale and said Germany appreciated NASA’s decision to move the Columbus launch up in the shuttle manifest. “If another gap [in the manifest] should develop, we would like to move up further — that would be nice, Mrs. Dale.”
Germany is leading Europe’s multibillion-dollar investment in the international space station and in the past has been criticized by some of its neighbors, including France, for spending so heavily on a project in which Europe is entirely at the mercy of the United States — and the reliability of the shuttle’s manifest. Columbus cannot be launched by any other vehicle.
Even in Germany, the station has come to be seen by some government officials as a relic of the Cold War, a cumbersome machine that no longer excites the public imagination. German investment in astronaut-related space projects has been reduced in the past decade, with the station investment often referred to as a treaty obligation more than as a vector for technology development.
It was in this context that Merkel delivered her first address on space policy.
It was her first visit as chancellor to Bremen, a small town in which space technology is a major source of economic activity. In addition to EADS Space Transportation, space-hardware builder OHB-System is headquartered here. The University of Bremen is home to one of the city’s most visible landmarks — a 146-meter-tall drop tower used to perform experiments in microgravity owned by ESA and run by the Zarm Center of Applied Space Technology and Microgravity.
Merkel, who has a doctorate in physics and specialized in quantum chemistry, urged the public not to give up on the station simply because it does not yield visible scientific returns immediately.
“Basic research often leads to outcomes that could not be predicted,” Merkel said. “We should be willing to give research the needed room to maneuver. There might be long periods when no value appears to be created, only to be followed short periods during which a lot of value is created.”
Merkel said that space research has added dividends beyond jobs and scientific results. “Beyond the material value, it has a symbolic value and that is something we would like to continue,” she said.
For the German Aerospace Center, DLR, and German and European industry, it was the financial commitment that Merkel gave — a steady increase in aerospace research funding through 2009 — that was most eagerly awaited.
Sigmar Wittig, DLR’s board chairman, said in an interview that the DLR budget will be increasing in increments of perhaps 2.5 percent per year between 2006 and 2009. DLR already is planning to use the additional resources in part for two new Earth observation satellites, the EnMap hyperspectral imaging satellite and the radar-equipped Tandem-X.
Evert Dudok, president of EADS Space Transportation, urged the German government to spearhead European investment in a moon-based radio telescope, a project that EADS Space Transportation and the Netherlands Foundation for Astronomy, Astron, are working on jointly.
Wittig, conceding that German government officials have been frustrated with the station’s delays, said 2006 and 2007 should witness the initial harvest of the investment. ESA astronaut Thomas Reiter of Germany is scheduled to be a member of the shuttle crew on the July mission, and ESA’s Automated Transfer Vehicle, an unmanned cargo tug, is scheduled to make its first flight in mid-2007.
“It’s certainly about time we started to harvesting some of our investment in manned space flight,” Wittig said. “We are financing 41 percent of Europe’s space station program and we expect a scientific harvest and an economic harvest.”