BRUSSELS — The level of mistrust and disdain between the European Space Agency and the European Commission shows no sign of subsiding despite European governments’ reaffirmation that ESA would remain an independent body, European government and industry officials said.

What both sides once viewed hopefully as a problem of personalities that could be solved with a changing of the guard is now seen as a deeper institutional issue.

The most recent manifestation is the European Data Relay System, EDRS, an ambitious effort to create, with Airbus Defence and Space, a global optical satellite data-relay service for civil and military users, said these officials.

“ESA views the commission as ESA’s in-house banker, there only to provide the money and to keep away from program details,” one government official said. “And the commission views ESA as a technician, competent in its limited areas of expertise but incapable of setting strategy.”

EDRS satellite flyover. Credit: ESA video grab
The most recent manifestation of the sour relationship between ESA and the EC is EDRS, an ambitious effort to create, with Airbus Defence and Space, a global optical satellite data-relay service for civil and military users. Credit: ESA screen grab

That ESA and the commission — which is the executive arm of the 28-nation European Union — are condemned to work together is beyond dispute. The commission has become a major ESA financier, mainly through the Galileo satellite navigation network and the Copernicus satellite environment-monitoring program.

After openly insulting ESA in Galileo’s early days by saying the agency was incapable of correctly auditing its industrial contractors, the commission has come to realize that it will not have ESA space-program management skills anytime soon. A commission investigation of ESA’s Galileo contracts — a review designed to prove ESA’s lax program management — found nothing to suggest ESA was letting Galileo contractors line their pockets.

Talk of the commission’s eventual ownership of ESA has ended for now with European governments’ 2014 decision to retain the agency as a separate entity that would be, in effect, the commission’s prime contractor for space programs.

But despite these developments, the two sides often appear to be at sixes and sevens with each other — when they are not openly questioning each other’s competence. This has been repeatedly in evidence in both Galileo and Copernicus.

One Incident, Two Perspectives

The Soyuz-Fregat carrying Galileo satellites 5 and 6. Credit:ESA/CNES/Arianespace/P. Baudon
The Soyuz-Fregat carrying Galileo satellites 5 and 6. Credit:ESA/CNES/Arianespace/P. Baudon

From ESA’s point of view, the August failure of a Europeanized Soyuz rocket that placed two Galileo satellites into a useless orbit was, as space failures go, remarkably minor.

The design error in the rocket’s Fregat upper stage was discovered and corrected. The two satellites were fully tested in orbit despite their bad location and found to be functioning as expected, and 20 more identical spacecraft were already under contract with industry. This was not a billion-dollar satellite with no backup available. The Galileo radio frequencies had already been secured, and even a worst-case scenario the overall effects on the program were viewed as minimal.

But here in Brussels, the failure was viewed as a serious blow to Galileo, to which the commission has committed 6.4 billion euros ($8 billion) in its seven-year financial package for 2014-2020, including the Egnos GPS/Galileo overlay system.

At times, the commission, whose leadership changed in November, appeared shell-shocked by the Galileo launch anomaly and until Jan. 28 was uncertain whether to proceed with additional Soyuz launches. It took a meeting of the entire College of Commissioners and the commission president to approve a Soyuz launch.

“We had a setback, but we’ll go forward,” said Elzbieta Bienkowska, the commission’s new de facto space commissioner, in announcing the Soyuz decision at a space conference here. “I am determined to put the Galileo program back on track.”

One European space industry official said that if the commission had been in charge of space policy in 1996, when the Ariane 5 heavy-lift rocket exploded shortly after liftoff on its inaugural flight, “there would not have been a second Ariane 5 mission. They would have abandoned it.”

‘This is Not How We do Things’

Sentinel 3. Credit: ESA–Anneke Le Floc'h
Sentinel 3. Credit: ESA–Anneke Le Floc’h
Sentinel 3. Credit: ESA–Anneke Le Floc’h

The Copernicus Earth observation program, budgeted at 3.8 billion euros for 2014-2020, was the subject of early miscues between ESA and the commission, with ESA going to far as to threaten to stop launching satellites until the commission formally committed to pursuing the program.

EDRS, intended as a global network of optical laser nodes speeding delivery of data from low-orbiting Earth observation satellites — including Copernicus craft — to identical nodes in geostationary orbit and then to ground users, is illustrative.

Budgeted at around 500 million euros, EDRS was conceived as a public-private partnership between ESA and Airbus Defence and Space.

Airbus agreed to invest some 130 million euros of its own money into the system, on the condition that ESA validate the technology and provide minimum guarantees that European governments would use EDRS services as anchor customers. With much of its nonrecurring costs covered, Airbus then would commercialize the service worldwide, with the U.S. Defense Department viewed as a prospective customer.

To reduce costs all around, one of the two EDRS laser nodes intended for geostationary orbit was scheduled for placement on a satellite that would carry a hosted telecommunications payload owned by Avanti Communications of London, a publicly traded company that raised 75 million British pounds ($128 million) in public bonds to finance its payload. Airbus contracted with OHB AG of Bremen, Germany, to build the satellite, which Airbus and ESA call EDRS-C and Avanti calls Hylas-3.

The Airbus-ESA goal to have all system commitments wrapped up by February 2014. That deadline came and went as ESA took longer than expected to sign a broad Copernicus agreement with the commission and to validate the EDRS technology. Both these objectives were met in November.

But the commission did not sign an EDRS Service Level Agreement within the Copernicus arrangement with ESA.

“ESA has asked us to commit to using a service we don’t need, and used assumptions about our contribution in negotiating with Airbus,” one commission official said. “They did not ask us beforehand, they just assumed we’d go along. This is not how we do things.”

Another commission official said ESA had integrated into its Airbus contract 20 million euros per year of commission funding for five years. “This wasn’t based on any assessment of our use of EDRS, and it was more than the whole system costs to operate. It’s as if they wanted to hide this aspect until the last minute. Then they come to us in late 2014 and say there is a contract deadline of Dec. 22.”

From Impasse to Uncertainty

The Dec. 22 deadline was passed with no agreement on financing.

On Jan. 16, ESA Director-General Jean-Jacques Dordain said the financing issue might force a cancellation of the EDRS-C satellite.

On Jan. 22, in response to SpaceNews inquiries, ESA said it was having discussions with “a few” ESA nations involved in EDRS with a view to resolving a 10 million-euro gap in ESA’s own EDRS funding plan.

On Jan. 26, in what appeared to be an attempt to calm Avanti investors, ESA said it would meet with Airbus on Jan. 28 and that all outstanding issues would be resolved, and that EDRS-C/Hylas 3 would be built.

On Jan. 27, Philippe Brunet, director-general at the commission’s directorate responsible for space — formally titled internal market, industry, entrepreneurship and SMEs— said the EDRS issues “are on the verge of being discussed.”

Evert Dudok. Credit: ESA
Evert Dudok. Credit: ESA

On Jan. 28, Evert Dudok, head of Airbus’ Communication, Intelligence and Security division, which includes the EDRS program, told the Brussels conference Airbus remains a believer in the EDRS potential but that “innovations like this will need some time for market pickup, and it is fundamental that we have anchor customers like the commission.”

A series of meetings the evening of Jan. 28 apparently made some progress, with one official saying the commission would be willing to pay 12 million euros per year for EDRS for five years.

It was unclear whether ESA and Airbus had found additional monies on their part to fill the funding gap. One official said Airbus raised anew the possibility of launching EDRS-C with SpaceX of the United States, rather than aboard an Ariane 5 — a threat that caused negative French government reaction in December.

On Jan. 30, ESA issued a statement saying “ESA and Airbus confirm partnership to complete the full [EDRS] system.” There was no mention of the commission’s role or of financing.

Dordain’s office referred inquiries to Magali Vaissiere, ESA’s director of telecommunications, whose division includes EDRS. Vaissiere declined an interview request, saying: “We will continue to communicate, as we have done in recent weeks and months, at each important program development milestone.”


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