Editorial: Keep GMES on a Stable Foundation

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The European Commission’s surprise proposal to leave the Global Monitoring for Environment and Security (GMES) space-based Earth observation initiative out of its latest multiyear spending plan creates uncertainty that could undercut program stakeholders including companies that are investing in GMES-related services and applications. It is an about-face for the commission, which until recently had given every indication that GMES, along with the Galileo satellite navigation system, was a long-term priority.

Just as surprising is the stated reasoning behind the commission’s reversal: GMES’s potential “costs and/or cost overruns are too large” to be covered solely by the latest seven-year European Union budget, which runs from 2013 through 2020, the European Union’s executive arm said in a budget proposal document. That apparently came as news to the European Space Agency (ESA), which is financing and overseeing development of the GMES space segment. The initial rounds of satellites for GMES’s centerpiece program, Sentinel, are well along in development, with initial launches two years away, and according to ESA, there are no indications of cost overruns. Galileo, meanwhile, has a history of soaring cost growth and yet was included in the commission’s budget plan.

This is not to say that GMES won’t exceed its budget in the future, as government programs seem prone to do. But even in the event that does happen, surely the European Commission, which in the last few years has established itself as a player in space activity, understood what it was getting into when it opted for a major role on GMES. It was the commission, after all, that came to the financial rescue when Galileo was facing collapse under the weight of its ballooning price tag.

Some European officials have suggested that the commission’s proposal, which would make GMES dependent upon voluntary contributions from individual European Union member states after 2013 — a total of 834 million euros ($1.2 billion) per year would be sought starting in 2014 — is a ploy intended to give the commission political cover in tough budgetary times. According to this theory, the resulting outcry would leave the commission with no choice but to reinstate the program in its long-term funding plan.

If that is in fact the case, so far so good. The European Association of Remote Sensing Companies (EARSC), whose members plan to develop — and in some cases have invested in — marketable applications for GMES data, immediately criticized the move as a big step backward. ESA has weighed in as well. It has asked its member states to protest the decision and is preparing to take its case directly to the European Parliament, which along with European Council and the commission has endorsed the GMES program.

EARSC noted that with the initial Sentinel launches just two years away, now is not the time to introduce instability into the program, a likely outcome if GMES operations are financed by voluntary contributions. With no assurance of government co-funding, companies are far less likely to invest their money in GMES applications, further eroding the program’s base of support.

ESA’s director of Earth observation, Volker Liebig, noted that the agency’s research and development charter prevents it from funding repeat copies of satellites. In other words, ESA cannot be counted on to fund replacements for the first two rounds of Sentinel spacecraft, and GMES by its very nature is a long-term program.

One of the advantages that European Commission-funded programs enjoy is that they are not subject to the geographic return rules that govern ESA projects. This would give managers of the operational GMES system more leeway to award contracts according to what they deem is best for the program rather than geographically based on each nation’s individual contribution. But the commission’s proposed new funding scheme would effectively make GMES follow-on satellites subject to the geographic return principle: Only those countries with a substantial portion of the work — France, Germany and Italy come to mind — would be inclined to make significant contributions. Moreover, each year would bring new potential for disputes over work share that could cripple the program.

U.S. efforts to create a long-term program to monitor global climate and environmental change, which date back to the early 1990s, have stumbled due to funding issues and a dubious scheme to piggyback those measurements onto operational weather satellites. In recent years GMES has emerged as the best bet not only to fill the data vacuum following retirement of NASA’s three main environmental monitoring research craft — Terra, Aqua and Aura — which are operating beyond their design lives, but also to continue making these measurements well into the future.

Two years remain before the European Commission must finalize its next seven-year budget. GMES supporters in industry — including the space segment prime contractors — ESA, the European Parliament and elsewhere must keep the pressure on the commission to reverse course again, lest another opportunity to establish a truly long-term data record of environmental change fall by the wayside.