PARIS – NASA Administrator Charles Bolden on June 15 made an impassioned plea to European governments not to quit the International Space Station partnership, saying the low-orbiting outpost is the on-ramp for longer-term collaboration in space exploration.

“By extending the Space Station to at least 2024, we as a partnership can continue to conduct the research and technology demonstrations that are critical to moving humans beyond low-Earth orbit,” Bolden said in an address to the ruling council of the 22-nation European Space Agency.

ESA’s governments are scheduled to meet in December to decide on a mid-term budget and specifically to discuss whether to remain a space station partner to 2020 – still not formally agreed to – and ultimately to 2024. These same governments in December 2014 refused to fully commit even to the 2020 date.

Euro-Russian ExoMars program gets cash lifeline

At the same meeting that heard Bolden, ESA governments agreed to continue to finance the over-budget ExoMars program featuring two launches to Mars. One occurred earlier this year and is on its way to Mars orbit with a telecommunications relay and atmospheric-gas sensor. The second, carrying a descent module and a European rover vehicle, had been scheduled for 2018 but has slipped to 2020 because of delays at both the European and Russian program teams.

ESA governments’ December meeting will vote on whether to complete funding for the second ExoMars launch despite the two-year delay and despite the fact that they had never secured sufficient money to complete the two-part ExoMars mission.

David Parker, ESA’s director of human spaceflight and robotic exploration, said nations taking part in ExoMars agreed unanimously to a further 77 million euros ($87 million) to fund program work through the end of this year. The remaining funds will be sought at the December meeting.

In a June 16 interview, Parker said the fresh ExoMars cash was approved unanimously by the participating governments, led by – in order of their financial commitment – Italy, Britain, France and Germany.

Parker said ESA has tentatively concluded, pending final negotiations with industry, that ExoMars will be about 25 percent over budget, for a total cost of 1.5 billion euros.

“The key thing is that they unanimously took the decision,” Parker said of the agreement to provide ExoMars’s latest tranche of funding. The remaining ExoMars money awaits the ministerial conference in December.

Europe is only station partner not yet committed to 2024

Whether the space station can boast of a similar level of support is unknown. Recent comments from German government officials and from ESA Director-General Johann-Dietrich Woerner suggest that Europe will not allow itself to be the only partner to abandon the effort.

Parker declined to speculate on whether ESA governments would approve the extension to 2020 and then 2024 in December. “We have to make the case to them,” he said.

Inviting Bolden to make the pitch on behalf of the space station serves ESA’s strategy of building support for the station by December. For many governments, budget decisions of this kind must be made months before the actual commitment is made to ESA.

In his speech, Bolden acknowledged the financial stresses on ESA governments but said all the other space station partners – the United States, Russia, Japan and Canada – have surmounted their own problems to commit to continued space station operations until at least 2024.

At one point, he said the station was a positive example to a world buffeted by negative forces.

“There is anger and extremism permeating our lives and political discourse. There is terror and intolerance. Values and ideals that our parents and their parents paid for in blood and tears are in peril,” Bolden said. “I submit to you that the International Space Station represents what is best in humankind.”

NASA has agreed to allow ESA to pay its share of the station’s common operating costs in by building the service module for NASA’s Orion crew-transport vehicle.

The lone service module agreed to so far pays Europe’s station utilities budget until 2020. A second would be the first element of a broader agreement that would allow ESA to avoid paying cash to NASA.

While the service module will be built as part of space station related barter, the Orion program goal is missions far beyond the 400-kilometer altitude of the international space station. Bolden said Europe’s work on Orion is a link between the space station and future exploration projects.

David Parker, director of ESA’s human spaceflight and exploration, said the only other hardware commitment to exploration that ESA is making so far is to the landing gear for Russia’s Luna-Resource lunar mission.

ESA in May signed a contract, valued at about 10 million euros, with Airbus Defence and Space to start work on the landing system. A final go-ahead investment will await the ministers’ decision.

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