The European Service Module, which provides power and propulsion for NASA's Orion crew-transport vehicle.
ESA is negotiating contracts for new European Service Modules for NASA's Orion crew-transport vehicle, as a contribution to the Gateway and Artemis programs. Credit: Airbus

HELSINKI — The European Space Agency will ask its 22 member states to commit to funding a budget of 12.5 billion euros ($13.9 billion) spread over the next three years.

ESA Director General Jan Woerner told a news conference Oct. 17 that the proposal will be put to the next ESA Ministerial Council to be held Nov. 27-28 in Seville, Spain.

The November conference will see member states discuss ESA’s future work and funding. If finalized and accepted, the commitment would be an increase over the $12 billion secured at the previous triennial ministerial in 2016.

The spending proposal is spread across four pillars consisting of a mixture of mandatory and optional programs. Preliminary numbers would see each of science and exploration, applications, and enabling and support receive about a third of the ESA budget, with space safety and security receiving 7%.

Science and exploration will cover existing commitments such as the International Space Station but could include new lunar and Mars projects. ESA will engage in both autonomous initiatives and those through international cooperation, including NASA’s Gateway and potentially a Mars sample-return mission.

Despite uncertainties regarding funding for NASA’s Artemis program and its timeline, Woerner stated that what mattered for ESA was information received in official messages. The ESA DG engaged in recent communications with NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine and Scott Pace, U.S. National Space Council executive secretary.

“The Americans are looking forward that we deliver not only the third, but more European Service Modules,” Woerner says.

ESA is currently in intense negotiations with Airbus for the delivery of a third European Service Module for NASA’s Orion crew-transport vehicle for beyond low Earth orbit. A further batch order of six is under negotiation, in line with NASA’s contracting for Orion command modules.

NASA is also looking to ESA involvement in the Gateway via the ESPRIT module and the International Habitat (iHab) module elements of the officially named Lunar Orbital Platform – Gateway (LOP-G).

This participation could lead to the offer from NASA that, “in the future also there may a European astronaut on the surface of the moon,” Woerner noted.

Assistance for Ariane 6, Vega C

On space transportation, ESA is looking to get Ariane 6 and Vega C completed and on the market. Asked by if the Ariane 6 would be subsidized as with the predecessor Ariane 5, Woerner replied:

“The idea was and is that Ariane 6 would be 50% cheaper than Ariane 5. When this decision was made…this 50% decrease would have been an excellent position in the international launcher market.

“Now what we see is that the market is further developing with lower prices and this is of course a challenge for us. So therefore, we have to see what we can do to prepare for a future with cheaper launchers, or whether we need some support for Vega and Ariane 6 to be competitive,” Woerner said.

“It’s clear the other launchers worldwide get some support in this or that way from the public side, whether it will be by nice contracts or whatever assistance,” Woerner added.

ESA is looking into reusability with parachute systems and the Space Rider reusable end-to-end integrated space transportation system. The agency is also looking at micro launchers, albeit with less intensity.

Political variables in ESA budget

Asked about the political uncertainties among member states, Woerner noted that the Spanish government appears committed to increased spending despite an election next month. Spain is the fifth largest member state in terms of contribution to the ESA budget.

Addressing the issue of the United Kingdom’s expected exit from the European Union, Woerner downplayed potential issues, stating that it was “not a big headache,” regarding the budget question. One potential issue was with Belgium, with Woerner describing the political situation as “not so clear.”

Woerner said he is hopeful of securing a “near double-digit” increase in the space science budget. That figure, however, is preliminary.

ESA budget negotiations and deliberations will continue for the 40 days leading the November ministerial, this time called Space19+.

Andrew Jones covers China's space industry for GBTIMES and SpaceNews. He is based in Helsinki, Finland.