ESA Freezes Spending at ’09 Level for 2 Years

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PARIS — The European Space Agency (ESA) will freeze spending at 2009 levels in 2010 and 2011 to ease the pressure on the national budgets of its 18 member governments, ESA Director-General Jean-Jacques Dordain said Jan. 14.

The move follows four consecutive years of annual 10 percent increases in ESA cash outlays.

Dordain said the spending freeze, to be accompanied by a modification of the way ESA pays its contractors, will permit the agency to maintain all the programs its member states have approved in recent years without forcing ESA to take out a loan, while at the same time reducing the near-term cash demands on its member states.

Addressing a press conference at ESA headquarters here, Dordain said ESA’s annual spending reached a record 3.35 billion euros ($4.83 billion) in 2009. While the agency’s 2010 budget — a reflection of the new programs ESA governments have agreed to start and ongoing cash requirements for existing programs — will rise 4 percent over 2009, its total cash outflow will be limited to 3.35 billion euros through 2011.

The figure will not be adjusted for inflation.

“All the programs we have approved will go forward. There will be no cancellations,” Dordain said. “But we will proceed in such a way so as not to cause any payment issues in our member governments. No member states want to renege on commitments already made, but they don’t want me to borrow money and then ask them to pay the associated costs” of a loan.

Dordain said some of the financial pressures are likely to ease as certain space hardware programs progress less quickly than planned, allowing the agency to postpone payments as a consequence.

For new contracts, ESA will scrap its long-standing policy of paying contractors what Dordain called “a princely sum” at the time of a contract’s signing.

“Now they will be paid a less-princely sum at the signing of the contract, and a bit more as the contract milestones are reached. That is the solution we are working on with industry.”

ESA’s total budget in 2010, including payments from the European Commission and other outside revenue sources, is 3.74 billion euros, up 4 percent from 2009.

The budget reflects the planned requirements of all ESA’s programs. But each year some programs face delays, meaning their cash demands are less than expected. This leads to a gap between ESA’s annual budget and what it actually spends for its own operations and for contracts with industry.

The 2010 budget includes nearly 755 million euros in contributions from the European Commission, which has hired ESA to manage the Galileo satellite navigation project, and is co-investing with ESA in a broad Earth observation effort called Global Monitoring for Environment and Security, or GMES.

With Galileo and GMES both nearing their peaks in terms of required capital investment, navigation and Earth observation have surpassed launch vehicles and human spaceflight in ESA’s budget hierarchy.

Spending on launchers has come down in part because the heavy-lift Ariane 5 rocket has operated for seven years without a failure. Two new vehicles being introduced with ESA backing to Europe’s French Guiana spaceport — the medium-lift Russian Soyuz and the Italian-led Vega small-satellite launcher — have passed their peak development spending.

Soyuz is scheduled to make its inaugural launch this summer, and Vega’s first flight is expected to occur either late this year or early in 2011.

Dordain said ESA would try to nudge its partners in the international space station — the United States, Russia, Japan and Canada — to commit this year to extending the station’s life at least to 2020. The current retirement date is 2015, even though the last of the non-Russian hardware in the assembly of the orbital outpost will not be launched until this year.

“How can I encourage scientists to use the station if I have to tell them, ‘Hurry up, we’re shutting down in 2015’?” Dordain said. “We should use the station as long as its benefits outweigh the operating costs.”

Dordain also said ESA would be proposing to its partners several options for reducing the station’s operating costs, and also would be pushing to add new nations to the space station partnership.

To broaden the station’s appeal, ESA has issued a request for proposals on ways to use the station as a platform for monitoring global climate change.

“Here you have a platform that is in permanent orbit between 51 degrees north and 51 degrees south latitude,” Dordain said. “It covers a lot of tropical zones that are of high interest to those studying climate change. The station is orbiting at 400 kilometers in altitude, which is lower than almost any Earth observation satellite.”

ESA has set a Jan. 18 deadline for proposals from European researchers on how to collect climate and environmental data from station-mounted hardware. He said the agency expects to receive about 20 proposals.