ESA Members Offer Different Visions as Space Policy Conclave Looms

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PARIS — Senior officials from the German, French, Italian and British space agencies outlined the positions they will defend at what may be a rough conference in November to set Europe’s space policy direction for the next several years.

In presentations made Sept. 12, these officials occasionally reminded their counterparts that, for European Space Agency members, supporting the neighbors is often the best way of supporting yourself.

The session opened with Germany’s de facto space minister, Peter Hintze, issuing a strong endorsement of the 20-nation European Space Agency (ESA) as Europe’s sole space agency, a status that Hintze said Germany wants to be maintained.

Hintze, who will lead the German delegation to the meeting of ESA ministers in November, is parliamentary state secretary at the Federal Ministry of Economics and Technology, and is the federal government coordinator of German aerospace policy.

In strongly endorsing ESA, Hintze was sending a message to the commission of the 27-nation European Union, which has its own ambitions in space. ESA and the commission have yet to set the borders of each other’s responsibilities. Hintze said Germany, which is the European Union’s biggest financial contributor and, with France, the biggest ESA supporter, would not accept a duplication of efforts or attempts to create a second European space agency.

Hintze also reminded his counterparts that Germany remains attached to the international space station and does not want Europe’s support for it to run out of steam now that development is done and station operations are in full swing.

ESA wants its 20 governments in November to commit to financing the station’s operations through 2020. For this to succeed, Germany, ESA’s contributor to station operations, must persuade France and Italy to maintain their investments.

France and Italy, in turn, want German support for launch vehicles and for the ExoMars project to send a telecommunications orbiter, a lander and a rover to Mars on two missions in 2016 and 2018. Both launches are to be provided by Russian Proton rockets as part of a cooperative effort with the Russian space agency, Roscosmos, which is expected to confirm its participation at the November conference.

Enrico Saggese, president of the Italian Space Agency, ASI, said Italy wants not only ExoMars support, but also backing for upgrades to the Italian-led Vega small-satellite launch vehicle, which conducted a successful inaugural flight in February.

Saggese said advances in electric propulsion for telecommunications satellites could bring these satellites’ weight down to where they could be launched by an upgraded Vega.

Saggese said Italy views ExoMars as the nation’s flagship mission and would support others’ flagships in return for help with ExoMars. “Germany has the [space station], France has launchers and Italy has ExoMars. We will work hard to help our friends, and to have our friends help us,” Saggese said.

Thierry Duquesne, director of programs at the French space agency, CNES, outlined France’s concerns about the long-term financial viability of the current Ariane 5 ECA rocket, which is marketed and operated by the Arianespace consortium of Evry, France.

Despite maintaining a commercial market share of about 50 percent, Arianespace still requires annual support payments from ESA governments to maintain financial equilibrium. Many ESA governments want these payments, of around 120 million euros ($150 million), to be “drastically reduced, or even cut off,” Duquesne said.

The problem is that the commercial market is getting tougher, not easier, for Arianespace with the arrival of the Falcon 9 rocket built by Space Exploration Technologies Corp. of Hawthorne, Calif., and the possible arrival of the Chinese Long March rocket as a full commercial player.

If competitive pressures were to reduce Ariane 5 launches to five per year from the current six or seven, Duquesne said, “the current industrial capabilities [of Ariane 5 contractors] cannot survive.”

Germany and France continue to debate whether to begin work on a less-expensive Ariane 6 vehicle immediately, or to approve an Ariane 5 upgrade first.

U.K. Space Agency Chief Executive David Williams said the British government is working to maintain its role in ESA’s science and Earth observation programs but that a final investment total for the ESA conference in November has not been determined.

“Sad to say,” Williams added, that whatever the British contribution, it likely will not include participation in the international space station’s operations, or in any Ariane rocket upgrade or successor.

Williams reminded the audience that there are no longer any astronauts in Europe from individual countries, and that Timothy Peake is “not a British astronaut, but a European astronaut of British nationality.”