— The toughest debate among European Space Agency (ESA) government ministers during their Nov. 25-26 conference here concerned not the many new programs ESA wants to pursue, but rather its biggest ongoing commitment: the international space station.

As is true of many ESA programs, the debate concerned essentially
, the agency’s three biggest contributors.

At issue was ESA’s proposal to spend 1.376 billion euros ($1.73 billion) between 2009 and 2012 on space station utilization, mainly for the construction of four unmanned Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) cargo carriers.

ESA has agreed to pay NASA for ESA’s share of the station’s operating costs not in cash, but in hardware contributions, including ATV missions. Under the agreement with NASA, ESA owes four ATV missions between 2010 and 2015. If the station’s operational life is extended to 2020, as many expect will occur, ESA will owe NASA additional flights in return for its access to 8.3 percent of the station’s resources.

ESA signed a contract in July 2004 with ATV prime contractor Astrium Space Transportation of Bremen, Germany, calling for production of six ATVs in addition to the inaugural version, called Jules Verne, which successfully completed its mission in 2008.

The contract with Astrium Space Transportation, valued at 835 million euros in 2004, subsequently was modified to include completion of four, not six, ATVs following delays in the launch of
laboratory to the station.

Under the revised contract, Astrium Space Transportation is to deliver one ATV per year between 2010 and 2013. Even though the final ATV is not due to NASA until 2015, ESA wanted to reduce the overall contract cost by getting Astrium to deliver on an accelerated schedule.

ESA estimates that completing the four ATVs and launching them on four Ariane 5 rockets will cost 1.778 billion euros, ESA Human Spaceflight Director SimonettaDiPippo said in a Nov. 26 interview.

But in the months leading up to the ministerial conference, ESA determined that the Astrium Space Transportation team is unlikely to deliver the four ATVs at the agreed-to schedule, especially given the design modifications being made following the successful Jules Verne ATV flight.

Facing pressure from its governments to cut costs, ESA reduced its station exploitation budget request by around 400 million euros, to 1.376 billion euros. The lower budget included financing for Ariane 5 launches of only two of the four ATVs, and only partial integration of the fourth. ESA reasoned that it could postpone asking for the remaining funds until ESA’s next ministerial conference, scheduled for 2011.

second- and third-largest space station contributors, France and
, were happy with this proposal.
was not.

The German delegation, led by Peter Hintze, German state secretary for aviation and space, said ESA should have sufficient funds available so that if it turns out Astrium can make good on the contract delivery dates, it can pay the company rather than be faced with the embarrassment of being subjected to penalty payments.

French Research Minister Valerie Pecresse, who headed the French delegation, told journalists the evening of Nov. 25 that
wanted to keep the lower figure insofar as it was based on ESA’s own estimate of the likely hardware delivery schedule.

By the next morning, after what Hintze smilingly referred to as “long and friendly talks with
,” the three nations agreed to a compromise: The budget would remain at 1.376 billion, but ESA would be given a mandate to call on its governments for additional funds if they are needed to keep pace with the ATV delivery schedule.

In a post-conference press briefing, ESA Director-General Jean-Jacques Dordain said he had no problem with the way the issue was resolved.

“I believe I can manage this program with” the lower cost figure, Dordain said. “On the other hand, what
does not want, and I fully agree with them as usual, is that I am forced [to pay penalties] because I am short of money. This gives me the assurance that I can manage the program in the proper way. If industry delivers and I am short of money, I don’t want to have penalties because I am not able to pay for the industrial milestones.”

also reminded the ATV industrial consortium that ESA payments are made only when product is delivered: “I am not paying industry according to the commitments I have [from ESA governments]. I am paying industry when they deliver.”