ESA Unable To Secure Commitment to International Space Station Extension

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PONTE VEDRA, Fla. — The European Space Agency (ESA) was unable to win its member governments’ approval of NASA’s proposed five-year extension of operations of the international space station because of an unrelated dispute over financial support for Europe’s Arianespace commercial launch services consortium, ESA and European government officials said.

As a result, no decision approving the station’s extension to 2020 will be made before a March meeting of ESA governments. ESA already is committed to supporting the station through 2015, though the details remain to be worked out.

Meeting in its habitual closed-door session Dec. 15-16, ESA’s ruling council issued a statement expressing general approval for the station’s continued use, and also backing further support for Arianespace.

The resolution produced during the meeting makes no specific reference to Evry, France-based Arianespace’s request for 240 million euros ($324 million) over two years to offset certain fixed costs of its business at its suppliers’ factories in Europe and at the Guiana Space Center spaceport in French Guiana.

Antonio Fabrizi, ESA’s director of launchers, said the agency views Arianespace’s request for 120 million euros per year in support as “a kind of ceiling. We will now examine the request in detail and report to our council in March on our conclusions. But our member states are generally in favor of some support. What remains is an examination of what the level of support should be.”

In a Dec. 23 interview, Fabrizi said ESA will not be reimbursing Arianespace for its operating losses in 2009 and 2010. “Those are the responsibility of Arianespace and its shareholders,” Fabrizi said.

ESA governments have been spending some 200 million euros per year for the past five years on a program called European Guaranteed Access to Space, or EGAS.

The effort was undertaken to pull Arianespace out of a financial tailspin following a launcher failure and a price war for international commercial customers. EGAS funding ended in 2010, and for the moment there is nothing to replace it.

The Arianespace aid package is one of several issues competing for ESA’s attention and championed by different ESA governments. It is typical for each government to withhold support for other programs until its favored project is confirmed.

That is what happened with the space station.

ESA Director-General Jean-Jacques Dordain had hoped to confirm to NASA by the end of 2010 that ESA will continue its space station partnership until at least 2020. A continuation means paying Europe’s share of slightly more than 8 percent of the station’s common operating costs.

How to distribute that charge among ESA governments has been a subject of negotiations for several months. Germany, as the station’s biggest supporter at ESA, wanted the agency to secure backing for a full station program between 2010 and 2020, which German officials estimated would cost 3.8 billion euros.

It is unlikely that a full 10-year commitment will be forthcoming in March, European government officials said. But a two-year program, coupled with a formal European commitment to continue its station partnership to 2020, is well within reach, they said.

But it was not possible for a decision to be reached at the December council because ESA had agreed that the Arianespace-aid issue and the station’s extension would be tethered together to better ensure that both are resolved.

Simonetta di Pippo, ESA’s space station director, said the council agreed to create a working group to determine how ESA’s space station budget might be spent providing goods and services in lieu of cash to NASA for Europe’s station expenses. The agency has done just that with its Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) unmanned cargo carrier and other in-kind contributions to the station.

In a Dec. 17 interview, di Pippo said there is virtually no doubt that ESA governments will agree to the five-year extension. “In the resolution we adopted at the council meeting, our member states indicated that they would maintain their commitments under the IGA,” di Pippo said, referring to the Intergovernmental Agreement that binds the space station partners.

Yet to be determined is the size of ESA’s space station program for the coming 10 years beyond its minimum commitment to NASA, the station’s general contractor. Germany wants the budget to increase to account for increased European use of the now-completed orbital complex. France has proposed that the station budget be frozen at current levels.

Di Pippo said the recent demonstration by Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) of its ability to launch and recover a prototype of an unmanned cargo carrier may affect ESA governments’ views on investment in the station in the coming years.

“SpaceX certainly got our attention,” di Pippo said of the Dec. 8 launch, by a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, of the company’s Dragon unmanned cargo carrier on a demonstration flight. “This is a kind of revolution. We now know they can make it, and so we have to concentrate, on the government side, on new developments. We cannot just stick with our ATV now that the commercial sector is able to do this. Having visited the SpaceX facilities, I am not surprised by their success. But we need to react to it.”