PARIS — The European Space Agency (ESA) wants to use the recently approved European contribution to NASA’s Orion crew transport vehicle as a tool to widen trans-Atlantic collaboration to include a common space exploration vehicle, ESA Director-General Jean-Jacques Dordain said.
While Europe and the United States would retain their own launch vehicle capabilities for strategic autonomy, he said, exploration vehicles should be developed as collaborative ventures to avoid duplication.
“We’re basically talking about development of a truck,” Dordain said. “Is everyone going to develop his own truck? I have informed NASA that on my next trip to Washington I want to start talking about this.”
In a Nov. 29 press briefing with the French aerospace journalists association, Dordain said he wanted to avoid repeating what he called the “monumental error” committed by the partners of the international space station in developing separate transport vehicles to serve the station.
Given that transport costs account for about 50 percent of the total investment in a space exploration program, he said, the fact that the United States, Russia, Japan and Europe funded separate cargo carriers means none had sufficient funds to build a large-scale experiment-return vehicle.
“The only nation in the world now that runs an exploration program on its own is China, and I hope that will change,” Dordain said. “It is obvious that this should be done as part of an international effort.”
ESA governments on Nov. 21 agreed to join NASA in building the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle, with ESA to spend some 455 million euros ($592 million) to provide Orion’s service module.
That money would be owed to NASA in any event as Europe’s share of the station’s common operating costs between 2018 and 2020. The partners have agreed to operate the facility at least until then.
ESA’s common operating cost obligation through 2017 is being paid by flights of Europe’s Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) cargo carrier. The fifth and final ATV is scheduled for launch in 2014.
ESA had trouble securing support for the Orion program, with several governments, notably France, saying Europe should be able to find something with a higher public profile to meet its obligation to NASA.
But these governments ultimately agreed to spend 255 million euros in the next two years on the Orion work, with the remaining 200 million euros to come in 2014.
In accepting to participate in the Orion program, France said it would limit its participation to 20 percent of the total.
In what Dordain agreed was the surprise of the Nov. 20-21 ministerial conference, the British government agreed to spend 20 million euros on the Orion work. Britain has remained outside of the space station program, and outside of Europe’s launcher efforts as well.
The Orion work was bundled into a total space station funding package totaling 1.32 billion euros between 2012 and 2014. Led by Germany, which retained its leadership of Europe’s station effort with a commitment to finance 40.7 percent of that sum, ESA collected subscriptions for slightly less than 1.1 billion euros. The missing money will need to be found in the coming months, or ESA will cut back on its discretionary spending on its space station use.
While Britain’s arrival as a space station supporter was a positive surprise, the substantial drop in Italian participation was a negative. Italy committed to just 9.25 percent of the total package, which is about half its participation in previous space station investments in Europe.
Enrico Saggese, president of the Italian Space Agency (ASI), said in a Nov. 21 briefing after the Naples conference that in recent years Italy has received an insufficient amount of ESA space station contracts for Italian industry, and is reducing its participation to account for that.
ESA commonly guarantees that its member states’ industry will receive contracts equivalent to 90 percent of each nation’s contributions to an ESA program.
Saggese said Italian industry has received contracts valued at just 60 percent of Italy’s contributions.
In the briefing, Dordain reiterated that he would force ESA to reduce its internal costs by 25 percent by 2015, through reductions in staff and also through outsourcing of services ESA now provides. He said ESA’s annual internal costs total about 500 million euros.