Government ministers representing the 18 European Space Agency (ESA) member states demonstrated both resolve and the ability to compromise during their much-anticipated policy and planning summit in
, Nov. 25-26. The result was a sound and sensible spending plan covering the next three years. The 10 billion euro ($12.7 billion) package accommodates the top priorities of ESA’s biggest contributors –
– while boosting investment in space science and Earth observation.
It is noteworthy that the ministers approved a relatively ambitious spending program in the current dismal economic climate. As the leaders of the French, German and Italian delegations made clear, times of economic uncertainty are precisely when governments should be making science and technology investments that provide both immediate and future payoffs.
Among the ministers’ most important accomplishments was securing a 3.5 percent annual increase in science spending for the next three years. While this figure will not be adjusted for inflation, it marks an improvement over the 2.5 percent annual increases agreed to at the previous ministerial meeting in
in December 2005. That rate of increase, which barely kept pace with inflation, did very little to boost ESA’s buying power in an area that has produced some spectacular successes in recent years but whose budgets have been stretched way too thin.
Another positive outcome that might have escaped notice by many was the 2.5 percent annual increase to ESA’s overhead budget, covering expenses such as employee salaries, and legal and administrative costs. These may not be the most exciting or glamorous activities, but they are nonetheless vital and the increase was overdue considering that ESA’s overhead budget has been flat in absolute terms for the past three years.
Compromise came into play in several areas, prominent among them funding for construction of Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) cargo delivery capsules, which ESA uses to fulfill its obligations to the international space station program. At issue was ESA’s revised proposal to spend 1.376 billion euros on space station utilization, with most of those funds earmarked for construction of the four ATVs needed to cover ESA’s obligations from 2010 to 2015. ESA’s largest single contributor,
, argued that more money was necessary to avoid penalty payments if ATV builder Astrium Space Transportation of Breman,
, is able to deliver all four vehicles by 2013 as called for under its contract. ESA officials doubted Astrium could meet that schedule but acknowledged
‘s point, and the ministers ultimately settled on a plan that keeps space station funding at 1.376 billion euros but with a proviso that ESA will seek additional funding from its member governments should Astrium stay on track.
Another key compromise will enable ESA to proceed with its third generation of Meteosat geostationary weather satellites, with
each being assured of a prime contractor role in the effort. The ministers also overcame opposition among some members to fund duplicate versions of the three Sentinel satellites being built as part of the ESA-European Union Global Monitoring for Environment and Security initiative, also known as Kopernikus. This effort will maintain
‘s position at the forefront of the increasingly critical field of space-based Earth observation.
The ministers also secured a major role for
in planetary exploration with an 850 million euro commitment to the Enhanced ExoMars rover project. The mission will have to be scaled back unless ESA finds some 200 million euros in support from outside partners including the
, raising the possibility that the rover will launch on a Russian Proton rocket. This prospect might not sit too well with supporters of the European Ariane 5 rocket, but the ministers also agreed to spend more than ESA had asked for to develop a new upper stage that will increase that vehicle’s payload-carrying capacity.
As is always the case when ideas are bigger than budgets, some initiatives had to be deferred. The allocation of only 20 million euros to study an ATV variant capable of returning space station cargo to Earth – a precursor to an independent European human spaceflight capability – signals that ESA members remain content to rely on other countries to launch their astronauts for the foreseeable future. Similarly, a proposal to merge the space surveillance systems of several European countries into a single, more capable network received just 49.5 million euros, or about half the 100 million euros sought by ESA.
If there was one disappointing aspect to the meeting it was the way it was conducted: in secrecy. The entire proceedings – the debate and the give-and-take among members – took place behind closed doors, with selected results disclosed, without documentation, in press conferences after the fact. This would be understandable if the activities in question were sensitive or classified, but these are civil and dual-use programs, and open debate gives taxpayers the insight they deserve into how their money is being spent. As of Dec. 4, the exact budget figures still had not been released by ESA.
All told, however, the positives from the ministerial conference far outweigh the negatives. ESA’s members made a strong commitment to space activity with funding to match, and the ministers, in a display of flexibility and adroitness, were able to squeeze in much more content than seemed possible.