Dordain: Even with Government Cuts, ESA Programs Should Maintain Funding

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BERLIN — European Space Agency (ESA) Director-General Jean-Jacques Dordain said June 8 that he hopes to maintain every program agreed to by ESA’s 18 member governments in late 2008 despite a growing debt crisis in several of these nations.

Dordain said the June 7 decision by the German government Cabinet to spare education and research from a multibillion-euro round of German government budget cuts meant to preserve Germany’s credit rating should send a signal to other European nations that research, including space research, is a way to stimulate economic prosperity.

In a June 8 press briefing during the Berlin air show, ILA 2010, Dordain conceded he could not be sure that this would be the case in nations whose debt situation is more serious than Germany’s. He said his decision, made late last year, to freeze spending in 2010 and 2011 at 2009 levels now looks more prudent than ever, and he expressed guarded optimism that this would be enough to head off an erosion of the agency’s program.

ESA governments in November 2008 approved more than 10 billion euros ($12.1 billion) in new spending in the coming years. Many of these programs call for investment to start in 2009 and 2010, and then to reach their peak in the following two years before declining as hardware is delivered.

But with each passing week, fresh doubts appear about the ability of European nations to service their debt without major spending cuts. Greece and more recently Spain, for example, have witnessed large public protests of spending cuts.

Spain is ESA’s fifth-largest contributor. Dordain said Spanish authorities have said they are so intent on maintaining their ESA investment that they have authorized ESA to take out loans on Spain’s behalf, if needed, to permit Spain to maintain its ESA work share.

Italy and Britain, respectively ESA’s third- and fourth-largest contributors, are also facing severe government budget cuts. Italy is facing fresh demands for spending for a U.S.-European Mars exploration mission in which it is a major contributor. Italy also will be asked to commit to new spending to maintain operations for the international space station through 2020 rather than 2015.

Dordain said the ExoMars project needs funds only to cover operations, meaning that there are no near-term demands for fresh investment. Similarly, the space station investment is not a near-term issue but one for the longer term.

“I have had no signals from Italy that they are not prepared to accept all the programs” they subscribed to, Dordain said. France, ESA’s biggest contributor, is paying the bulk of 60 million euros in unplanned new bills to prepare Russia’s Soyuz rocket for use in Europe’s Guiana Space Center spaceport in French Guiana. But Dordain said France has not indicated it cannot meet its commitments.

Dordain said he needs a commitment late this year from the ESA nations participating in the space station to extend the operations of the orbital outpost to 2020 following NASA’s agreement to stay on at least until then as station prime contractor.

Dordain said Europe’s contributions to the space station, including a habitable laboratory and several connecting nodes, has recently been certified to be able to function until 2028, meaning the station’s life may be extended still further. The biggest ESA contributors to the space station are Germany, France and Italy.

ESA is studying whether to modify its existing Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) unmanned space station cargo freighter into a vehicle that could return experiments and other gear to Earth from the station. As currently designed, the ATV — whose second flight is scheduled late this year — is filled with trash and then burned up during atmospheric re-entry.

To be of maximum value to the station, the proposed ARV, or Atmospheric Re-Entry Vehicle, would need to be operational by around 2016, meaning development would need to start by 2012.

Dordain said he will not propose the ARV to ESA governments until he is certain that the other space station partners — the United States, Russia, Japan and Canada — are supportive of the project. Up to now, ESA has used ATV flights as partial compensation to NASA for providing space station utilities for the European station facilities.