ESA Budget Rises to $4B as 14 Nations Boost Contributions

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PARIS — Fourteen of the European Space Agency’s (ESA)18 member nations have agreed to raise their contributions for 2011 despite public debt concerns that have reached near-crisis levels in some of them, ESA officials said.

As a result, the agency has been given an overall 7 percent budget increase, to 2.975 billion euros ($4 billion). The additional money could provide a financial cushion in the event unplanned bills arrive ahead of its member governments’ scheduled payments, officials said.

“The fact that these nations have agreed to a fairly substantial increase in their contributions at this time is an indication of their belief that spending on research, and specifically on space technology, is an investment in the future,” said Gerhard Kreiner, ESA’s head of corporate controlling.

In a Jan. 18 interview, Kreiner said that, in keeping with ESA Director-General Jean-Jacques Dordain’s commitment not to overstress the liquidity positions of its member governments, this money will not necessarily all be spent in 2011.

As was the case for 2010, he said, ESA might be able to maintain a reserve of cash from 2011 to be available in the early weeks of 2012. ESA’s longstanding payments policy asks member governments to deposit cash in ESA’s accounts four times per year, with the first payment in February.

ESA was able to save some 200 million euros from the 2010 budget, with this money now being spent to pay bills — notably industrial contracts — that are due before the February member-state payments, Kreiner said.

In addition to cash from its member governments, ESA receives payments from the executive commission of the 27-nation European Commission as part of programs managed by ESA but sponsored, in whole or in part, by the commission. These include the Galileo satellite navigation system and the Global Monitoring for Environment and Security (GMES) Earth observation program.

European Commission payments to ESA in 2011 are expected to total about 778 million euros. Another 233 million euros will come from organizations for which ESA performs work, such as Europe’s Eumetsat meteorological satellite organization.

Finally, the agency expects to receive payments totaling 7.9 million euros in 2011 from nations that have cooperating-state agreements in place with ESA, a relationship that falls short of full membership. Dordain said he would be signing a cooperation accord with Israel in the coming weeks, and that Romania this year likely will become ESA’s 19th member state.

All these funding sources combined will give the agency 3.99 billion euros in 2011, which is 6.7 percent over what ESA had to work with in 2010.

France remains the biggest ESA contributor, paying 25 percent of the budget before the outside contributions from the European Commission and others are taken into account. Germany, which in the past couple of years has raised its ESA profile, is contributing 24 percent of the income ESA receives from its member states.

Both France and Germany are increasing their funding to ESA in 2011 over 2010. But even some nations whose public finances are under heavy pressure, such as Spain, are increasing their ESA payments, Kreiner said. He declined to say which nations had reduced their payments to the agency for 2011.

In a Jan. 14 press briefing on the budget, Dordain said the agency’s budget priorities remain so-called applications programs, which are believed to have near-term commercial value, and science.

Earth observation accounts for 21 percent of ESA’s total budget in 2011, up from 19 percent in 2010 as GMES and other satellite missions enter their high capital spending phases.

Navigation, which is mainly Galileo, is ESA’s second-largest funding area, accounting for 16.7 percent of the total budget planned for 2011. Launch vehicles, which for many years occupied ESA’s top spot on the spending charts, is in third position in 2011, expected to account for 15.3 percent of the budget.

A Europeanized version of Russia’s Soyuz rocket and the Italian-led, ESA-managed Vega small-satellite rocket are expected to make their debut launches in 2011 from Europe’s Guiana Space Center spaceport in French Guiana.

Most ESA programs are funded by optional contributions from the agency’s member governments, with each nation taking shares it deems most likely to produce contracts for its national industry from ESA. The major exception is science, which is funded by mandatory contributions from all ESA members based on the size of each nation’s economy.

For 2011, science is ESA’s fourth-largest spending area, accounting for 11.6 percent of the budget.