At a time when budgetary shortfalls and declines are more the rule than the exception, particularly in Europe, it was refreshing to hear German Chancellor Angela Merkel publicly call for a multi-year increase in the country’s space spending.

Ms. Merkel’s remarks came during a ceremony marking the delivery of Europe’s Columbus international space station module from prime contractor Astrium Space Transportation to the European Space Agency (ESA). Politicians are well known for playing to their audience, but this was a head of state speaking, and it seems clear that her remarks were more than indulgent happy talk.

European heads of state have not been in the habit in recent years of endorsing spending increases for space. Moreover, this is not just any state but Germany, Europe’s largest economy and the second leading contributor to ESA behind France. Germany also is Europe’s biggest contributor to the space station

A physicist by training, Ms. Merkel sees value in scientific research, even if it does not guarantee economic payoffs in the near term. During her speech, she further noted that space research has symbolic value.

The bottom line is that Ms. Merkel intends to end a several-year trend of flat space spending in Germany by seeking annual increases of up to 2.5 percent from 2006 to 2009. This is unqualified good news.

The increase would be applied toward Germany’s contribution to ESA as well as to national programs managed by the German Aerospace Center, DLR, with the latter receiving a slightly larger share. Germany currently spends a far lower percentage of its space budget on national programs than ESA’s other major contributors, France and Italy, and the emerging policy appears designed in part to redress that.

That could be good or bad news, depending on how the increase for national programs is applied. Supporting projects or industries that duplicate work going on elsewhere in Europe would no doubt be popular in some circles but might not be the most judicious use of the funds. It would make more sense from an international perspective to focus the DLR spending on German capabilities and technologies for which there are no other European alternatives.