LE BOURGET, France — The European Space Agency (ESA) will proceed with a June 29-30 vote on a two-part Mars exploration plan with NASA despite likely French opposition because any delay would risk missing a key launch date, ESA Director-General Jean-Jacques Dordain said June 22.

Dordain said ESA’s ExoMars contractors must begin work on a Mars orbiter, set for launch in 2016 aboard a NASA-provided Atlas 5 rocket, in July if they are to complete work in time to meet that schedule.

The orbiter will provide a crucial telecommunications relay function for the second ESA-NASA ExoMars mission, a jointly developed rover whose design and work-share distribution are yet to be determined, slated for launch in 2018.

That uncertainty has caused the French space agency, CNES, to call for a delay in approving full funding for ExoMars until a clearer picture develops of how much the NASA-ESA rover will cost.

CNES President Yannick d’Escatha said June 21 that France’s priority is the 2018 rover mission, and that the doubts about this mission’s contours under NASA-ESA management argue for an increased budget.

With ESA’s share of the two-part ExoMars mission budget capped at 1 billion euros ($1.4 billion), d’Escatha suggested that the 2016 mission should be scaled back, with the savings directed to preserving the scientific value of the 2018 mission.

France voted against a late-May ESA committee agreement to sign off on the ExoMars mission with NASA despite the many unknowns about the rover cooperation. A majority of ESA members agreed that delaying the start on the 2016 mission any further would raise the threat that mission, which includes an entry, descent and landing demonstration package, would be late on arrival and miss the 2016 launch date.

In a June 22 interview, Dordain agreed with this assessment. He said ESA is proceeding with plans to ask its Industrial Policy Committee, which is the final step to approving agency funding, to clear the ExoMars funds when it meets June 29-30.

The Industrial Policy Committee operates by simple majority, Dordain said, meaning it does not need French approval to OK the budget for ExoMars.

“I fully understand the French position,” Dordain said. “But industry has told me I have already wasted three months and cannot wait to approve funding for the 2016 mission beyond July 1. If I delay agreeing to ExoMars financing until questions about the rover are settled, industry could later tell me I am responsible for their missing the 2016 launch window. I do not want this.”

Dordain said that what the Industrial Policy Committee can do to assuage the concerns of France, and of any other nation worried that the 2018 mission may evolve in unacceptable ways, is to slow-drip funds for the 2018 mission through a series of limited-liability contracts and authorizations to proceed.

Dordain said that for the Industrial Policy Committee to decide ExoMars, ESA first needs a letter from NASA attesting to the U.S. agency’s commitment to the 2018 rover mission. That letter is expected by June 28.

With that letter in hand, Dordain said, he will ask the Industrial Policy Committee to approve ExoMars funding, with full metal-cutting financing for the 2016 but a slower disbursement of funding for 2018.

Dordain also said there may be a possibility of reducing the size of the 2016 mission’s 600-kilogram entry, descent and landing package to save money, with the savings going to the 2018 mission.



French Concerns Throw ExoMars Plan Into Doubt

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