Dordain Says ESA Cannot Go it Alone in Debris Mitigation

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PARIS—The head of the European Space Agency on May 20 said the agency’s space debris-mitigation practices will be scrapped unless other space powers follow suit, and that ESA’s one-nation, one-vote principle may need review given the disparity in member contributions.

In a speech to Britain’s Royal Aeronautical Society, Jean-Jacques Dordain also implicitly criticized the United States for trying to exclude China from a global space exploration effort, and for its lack of a clear long-term space exploration goal.

Dordain said he supports the 14-agency International Space Exploration Coordination Group (ISECG) not so much for what it does, which is produce reports, as for the fact that China is an active member.

“The most important part is that the Chinese are there,” Dordain said. “I am convinced that we cannot isolate the Chinese for the future of space exploration, including low Earth orbit. We have to work to ensure that the Chinese will be with us.”

Current U.S. government policy bars almost every sort of space cooperation with China.

Dordain, who is leaving on June 30 after 12 years in his current post, and 29 years at the agency, said the ISECG should set broad objectives and that smaller groups of nations should proceed with specific endeavors. Welding together a global cooperative effort, he said, would take too long.

Not for the first time, Dordain lamented today’s slow pace of exploration decision making, which he contrasted to the dawn of the spce agency when Yuri Gagarin orbited the Earth only four years after Sputnik, the first satellite, and Neil Armstrong set foot on the Moon just eight years after Gagarin’s flight.

“There was such an acceleration of activity,” Dordain said, that the space industry is the only place he wanted to work. “But today’s international exploration calendar is always moving a year away, every year. Even the United States has moved from the Moon, to Mars, to asteroids and so on. But it’s only plans. We need to have much more than plans,” he said.

ESA has adopted what it calls its Clean Space Initiative to ensure that all its launch vehicle and satellite programs gradually incorporate debris-mitigation features to reduce the amount of debris left in orbit.

Dordain said he would like ESA and Europe to be a model in debris-mitigation practices, but not if it comes at a cost of European industry’s competitiveness.

“Let’s face it: This Clean Space Initiative works against the competitiveness of European satellites and European launchers,” Dordain said. “But if we are the only ones doing it, we are doing good for the cleanliness of space and doing bad for the European space sector.”

Dordain used as an example Europe’s Metop Second Generation polar-orbiting meteorological satellites, whose final design and manufacturing contract was delayed to accommodate a controlled atmospheric re-entry over the Pacific Ocean.

The decision about tripled the amount of fuel needed on the satellites, making them more expensive to build and launch.

“We would be totally stupid to be the only ones” investing in debris mitigation while other space powers, including nations that put more objects into space than Europe, continue to disregard the debris issue, he said.

European industry officials have made similar comments about France’s Space Act, which over time will oblige all launchers operating on French territory – France is home to Europe’s Guiana Space Center spaceport in South America – to deorbit their upper stages.

That will force the Arianespace launch-service provider to reserve on-board fuel to perform the deorbit maneuver, reducing the amount of satellite payload that the rocket can carry and compromising its competitive position.

When Dordain arrived at ESA in 1986, the agency had 11 member nations. It is now at 22, with the expectation that it will grow to 28 nations in the next few years.

Dordain has encouraged the agency’s growth, but said that adding nations has not fundamentally redrawn the map of ESA contributors.

France and Germany still account for more than 50 percent of ESA contributions. Adding Italy and Britain, the top four nations pay more than 75 percent, and the top six nations together finance more than 85 percent of the agency’s activities when both direct ESA payments and financing from the European Commission are added together.

“We operate [the agency] on a one-country, one-vote policy. But only a few countries contribute [substantially] to the budget,” Dordain said. “There is something to be done regarding our decision-making.”