ESA Members Unlikely To Make 10-year Financial Commitment to Station

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PARIS — Germany has been unable to persuade its European Space Agency (ESA) partners to commit to a 10-year budget to continue use of the international space station until 2020 and likely will have to settle for a more-limited engagement, which will then be renewed in a few years, the head of Germany’s space agency said.

In an interview Nov. 30, the day the German Federal Cabinet approved a new space policy, Johann-Dietrich Woerner said it appears that only a few ESA space station contributors are able to guarantee their financial support for the full 10-year period.

ESA Director-General Jean-Jacques Dordain had said he wanted the agency’s member governments to both agree to the U.S. proposal to extend station operations to 2020 and guarantee their financial commitments to using the station over that period, during a meeting of ESA’s ruling council set for Dec. 15-16.

Dordain had said he would like to be spared the necessity of slicing the commitment into tranches, with a general political approval to extend the station to be given separately from a guarantee of financing.

Germany, which has long been the station’s biggest champion in Europe, had agreed and said it was ready to guarantee its 38 percent share of a 10-year station-utilization program of 3.8 billion euros ($5.1 billion). None of the other major contributors has elected to follow Germany’s lead.

Woerner said one reason is that different ESA nations have different priorities and want to trade a commitment to the space station for a guarantee from Germany that their favorite investments would also receive support. France, for example, which is the station’s second-largest contributor in Europe, is concerned about the financial viability of Europe’s Arianespace launch consortium and wants ESA to agree to a financial aid package that would take effect for 2011.

“We are putting our cards on the table” for the station, Woerner said. “Some others are putting cards on the table for other programs. It will now be up to [Dordain] to solve the problem and find out whose cards will be accepted, and whose won’t. We have different priorities among the member states, but I am confident that [Dordain] will find an acceptable compromise.”

Simonetta di Pippo, ESA’s space station director, agreed that it looks like ESA at its mid-December meeting will be able to secure only a general backing of the station’s life extension, plus perhaps a commitment for funding for two or three years.

“We think a 10-year perspective would help scientists plan for their experiments,” di Pippo said in a Nov. 24 interview. “Now it looks like we may need to get this commitment in two or more steps.”

Germany’s new space policy positions space spending as part of the country’s focus on high technology as a source of future jobs and a solution to down-to-Earth problems including climate change, space surveillance and security.

The document will be used as a benchmark for future programs to be crafted by the German space agency, DLR, which is financed mainly through the German Ministry of Economics and Technology.

The policy sticks mostly to general principles but drives home a couple of points that German officials have been making in recent months. Included is that Germany wants European governments, and especially France, to agree to fund a new upper stage for the Ariane 5 rocket — in which German industry would have a leading role — instead of moving directly toward designs of an Ariane 5 successor vehicle.

The second point is Germany’s insistence that day-to-day space policy oversight in Europe should remain with the 18-nation ESA and not be given over to the European Union’s executive commission.

German officials have been particularly concerned that the European Commission, by running industrial competitions based mainly on value for money, would scuttle Europe’s current space industry. That industry has been built over 30 years on the strength of ESA’s policy of distributing contracts based on the national contributions to a given program by each European government.

There is an ongoing debate in Europe over whether the commission should not take over at least some of ESA’s roles, reducing the agency’s function to one of engineering support. Germany opposes this.

“An independent, strong ESA continues to be essential for the success of the European space sector,” says the policy document, called “For a Sustainable German Space Sector: An Alliance of Industry, Science and Politics.”

The document refers to Germany’s role as Europe’s second-largest space power after France and ahead of Italy, and says: “This second-place position should not be just a source of satisfaction. It should also be an encouragement.”

At the last meeting of ESA government ministers to set long-term budget and policy goals, Germany contributed more funds than France. While this does not mean Germany will be ESA’s biggest contributor anytime soon, it does indicate the nation’s ambition to maintain space spending even at a time of economic difficulty, German government officials have said.

In what might have been unusual several years ago, the document, which includes input from the German Defense Ministry, says dual-use and military programs are increasingly dependent on space. It highlights Germany’s backing of a Space Situational Awareness program in Europe to mitigate the risk from space debris and to monitor what satellites are flying over European territory.