BREMEN, Germany — The head of the German space agency on Dec. 13 said Germany is preparing for a tough battle in 2012 to persuade its debt-burdened European partners to continue a large investment in the international space station.
Johann-Dietrich Woerner, executive chairman of the German Aerospace Center, DLR, said Germany also expects a difficult debate with France over whether to begin substantial investment in a next-generation rocket to replace the heavy-lift Ariane 5 when European Space Agency () governments meet in November to discuss a multiyear spending package.
In a press briefing at Astrium Space Transportation here during a space station contract signing, and in a subsequent interview, Woerner said Germany is not backing off its insistence that an upgrade of the current Ariane 5 take priority over work on a successor rocket.
“No, no and no,” Woerner said when asked if Germany’s position on the Ariane 5 Midlife Evolution (Ariane 5 ME) program had changed in favor of moving directly to a new-generation rocket. “We have not changed our view at all. We are still very much in favor of Ariane 5 ME.”
“The crisis of the euro will not make it easy, as there will be debates over Ariane 6, over Vega — this is always the case,” he said. Vega is a small-satellite launch vehicle led by Italy that is scheduled to make its inaugural flight in early 2012.
Ariane 6 is the name tentatively given in France to a next-generation European rocket. French government officials are still debating whether, given the sovereign-debt crisis in Europe, governments will not have to choose between the Ariane 5 ME project and a redesigned rocket that would be less expensive to operate.
ESA governments are scheduled to meet in November 2012 to debate a multiyear program and budget.
The Ariane 5 ME upgrade features a new, restartable upper stage that would provide a 20 percent increase in the Ariane 5’s payload-carrying capacity to geostationary transfer orbit, the drop-off point for most telecommunications satellites. This is the market that the current Ariane 5 system depends on to maintain financial equilibrium while offering a reliable rocket for European government payloads.
The design assumption for Ariane 5 ME is that the vehicle could be built for the same price as today’s Ariane 5 ECA rocket.
ESA in 2010 hired an outside auditor to review the current Ariane 5 system to look for ways to save money. Its principal conclusion was that very few savings were possible without scrapping the forced geographic distribution of industrial contracts that preserves the political and financial support needed for the Ariane system.
Woerner conceded the point, but said there remain avenues to squeeze savings from the current Ariane 5 system. “We will put pressure onto reduce its prices as we did in the past,” he said, referring to the commercial consortium that operates Europe’s launchers. “We are eager for Ariane 5 ME because it will help reduce costs and improve performance.”
Germany is Europe’s biggest contributor to the international space station, with approximately a 38 percent share. France and Italy are the next-biggest contributors.
Past ESA conferences have featured late-night horse-trading as Germany pushes for more space station investment against French resistance, and France argues for more Ariane backing from a reluctant Germany. More recently, Italy has been defending support for the Vega vehicle.
Woerner said he expected the same at the November 2012 conference of ESA governments. “Our nations have different interests,” he said.
By the time the space station is retired in 2020 — and the actual retirement date may be later — Germany will have spent some 4 billion euros ($5.4 billion), Woerner said. To assure maximum value for that investment, Germany will argue for strong support for a station utilization budget.
“This is both a question of getting a return on investment, and a question of science,” Woerner said. “We in Germany are convinced we should not reduce our science and technology investment even in difficult times.”