PARIS — The European Space Agency (ESA) on May 26 gave a sufficiently strong endorsement of a redesigned Mars exploration program with NASA to permit contract payments to restart in July, ESA officials said, adding that the new schedule leaves enough time — but just barely — to meet the program’s launch dates.

Meeting in Utrecht, Netherlands, May 26-27, ESA’s Human Spaceflight and Operations directorate agreed to the general outlines of an ESA-NASA cooperative effort that includes launches in 2016 and 2018. The two-launch program was destabilized in March when NASA said it could no longer afford to build its own rover for the 2018 mission to be launched alongside a European rover.

Instead, NASA proposed a joint rover for the 2018 mission.

With the rover mission facing a major review, ESA in early April issued a stop-work order on not only the 2018 rover work, but also on a 2016 mission with NASA to launch a Mars orbiter and an entry, descent and landing technology package.

The payment freeze was necessary because ESA governments approved the 2016 and 2018 missions as a single program called ExoMars.

In addition to coping with the rover issue, ESA’s ExoMars project was struggling to fit its industrial contract package into a budget of 1 billion euros ($1.4 billion). That figure includes only ESA’s work, and does not account for some 400 million euros in ExoMars experiments that will be provided by individual ESA member states.

ESA officials had planned to ask the agency’s check-writing body, the Industrial Policy Committee, for authority to resume payments for the 2016 mission while waiting for the rover issues to be settled. That would have permitted a restart of work in mid May.

ESA Director-General Jean-Jacques Dordain said he scrapped that idea because it would have required approval of the 2016 financing pending a resolution of the wider ExoMars budget issues and the NASA rover cooperation. Instead, he elected to seek prior approval by the Human Spaceflight and Operations panel.

In a May 26 interview, Dordain said that having now obtained that approval, the agency can present a complete package to the Industrial Policy Committee for financial approval on June 29-30.

“This allows us to restart work on July 1, which our industrial contractors have told us gives them enough time to meet the 2016 launch schedule,” Dordain said.

Alvaro Gimenez, ESA’s director of science and robotic exploration, said negotiations with the ExoMars industrial team in recent weeks have come close to the target price for ExoMars. Gimenez’s directorate has formal authority over ExoMars.

“We are now within about 5 percent of the ceiling price,” Gimenez said in a May 27 interview. “That gave us enough confidence to seek the board’s approval, and they endorsed our proposal. We have committed to remain within the ceiling price of 1 billion euros and we have also ring-fenced the 2018 budget so that it will not be threatened” by cost overruns in the 2016 mission.

Gimenez said ESA has budgeted about 260 million euros for the 2018 rover mission with NASA, which is about what it had planned to spend on its own rover. The 2016 mission, which features the ESA-built ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter — with a payload provided mostly by NASA — and the European entry, descent and landing package, is budgeted at just over 300 million euros for the industrial hardware contract.

To assure that the program budget is not exceeded, ESA has taken the unusual step of waiving almost all of its usual program management fees, a gesture which has cut ExoMars costs by about 50 million euros.

Gimenez conceded that removing much of ESA’s usual program oversight may be seen as adding risks, but said it was a signal to ESA’s member governments that the agency is committed to bring ExoMars in on time and within budget.

“We expect to be able to reduce the industrial proposal by the necessary 5 percent before the [Industrial Policy Committee] meeting in late June,” Gimenez said. “This will then get the program moving again with sufficient time to make the deadlines. In October, we will return to our governments to describe, in detail, the division of authority for the common rover we are building with NASA. There was some reluctance among member states, and this is normal. But we are quite pleased at the way things stand now.”



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Peter B. de Selding was the Paris bureau chief for SpaceNews.