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Asking for any budget increase is never easy for a space agency. Seeking a large increase — say, 25% — is particularly difficult. Doing so amid economic and geopolitical upheavals seems like pure folly.
Yet, that is exactly what the European Space Agency is doing. When representatives of its 22 member states meet in Paris in November, they will consider a proposal to increase ESA programs’ spending by 25% over the next three years. That increase is not only despite the ongoing effects of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on Europe’s space programs and the broader economy; it is, in some respects, a response to it.
“A very ambitious package”
In recent weeks, Josef Aschbacher, the director general of ESA, has discussed the importance of an “ambitious” package of programs to present at the ministerial council meeting in November.
“The circumstances are very challenging,” he said in an interview in August at the Kennedy Space Center, just before the first Artemis 1 launch attempt. “There is a huge crisis in Europe and, therefore, Europe looks very closely at how to invest and where to invest.”
Space, he argued, is a place for Europe to invest, given its strategic importance. “The ministerial will really focus on strengthening the space sector and being a strong partner,” he said. “This is at the core of what we are putting together right now.”
However, he offered few quantitative details about what ESA would request at the ministerial until a speech he gave at World Satellite Business Week in Paris on Sept. 12. He announced there that ESA would seek more than 18 billion euros ($18 billion) for the next three years, tweeting after the speech the more specific figure of 18.7 billion euros. That would represent a more than 25% increase from the 14.5 billion euros the agency secured at the previous ministerial meeting in 2019.
“I’m putting together a very ambitious package despite the current situation, despite the economic difficulties we have, because I firmly believe that, if we are not doing that, we will make a huge mistake in Europe,” he said at the
That increase also represents a change in strategy for ESA. For years, he acknowledged, Europe had become dependent to a degree on Russia, particularly in launch. Europe extensively used Soyuz for launching everything from Galileo navigation satellites to science missions. ESA also worked closely with Russia on the ExoMars mission to send its Rosalind Franklin rover to Mars, a mission that, before the invasion of Ukraine, was to launch in September.
Aschbacher noted in his Paris speech that, had it not been for that invasion, he would likely instead be at the Baikonur Cosmodrome for the launch. Instead, those ties were broken swiftly in the weeks after Russia’s invasion, a “painful experience” that left ExoMars and other missions stranded.
“You realize, especially in Europe, how dependent we are in space on Russia,” he said.
Aschbacher said that realization of dependence on Russia will factor into the proposals the agency will include in its ministerial package that “is resilient, increases our independence and strengthens our European space sector overall to make sure that we can do what we need to do.”
He offered few details about specific proposals the agency would include in the ministerial but indicated launch would be one priority. “Access to space is mandatory,” he said. “This is a top priority for us.”
That includes the long-delayed Ariane 6, whose first flight has now slipped to 2023, as well as the Vega C, which made its debut in July. He also mentioned the new wave of small “microlaunchers” being commercially developed in Europe and slated to make their first orbital launches next year.
There remain nagging doubts, though, that Ariane 6 and Vega C will be viable over the long term against growing competition from reusable vehicles, like SpaceX’s Falcon 9 and Starship, as well as Blue Origin’s New Glenn and others. There are industry expectations ESA will support early-stage work on new technologies to enable future reusable vehicles.
At the International Astronautical Congress (IAC) in Paris on Sept. 18, ArianeGroup unveiled a concept called the Smart Upper Stage for Innovative Exploration, or Susie. This would be a reusable upper stage that could be flown first on the Ariane 64 and on later reusable vehicles. Susie would be a combination of upper stage and spacecraft that could carry cargo or even crew to orbit, returning for a powered vertical landing.
Susie has been an internal project at ArianeGroup for the last two years, said Morena Bernardini, head of strategy and innovation at ArianeGroup, in an interview. The company unveiled Susie at the IAC in part to raise interest in the project ahead of the ESA ministerial.
“This is a proposal that we as an industry make to the member states that we would like them to adopt to start the initial development phases,” Bernardini said. She did not disclose how much funding ArianeGroup is looking for but said that if funded at the ministerial, a technology demonstrator could be ready by 2025. An operational cargo vehicle could enter service by 2030, followed by a crewed version “immediately after.”
“It can always be accelerated,” she said of that schedule, “but it means that we really have to have the political decision in Europe to do this.”
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Europeans on the moon
Another priority for ESA at the upcoming ministerial is exploration. The agency is already a key partner of NASA on the Artemis lunar exploration effort, providing the service module for the Orion spacecraft and two parts of the lunar Gateway, a habitation module and a refueling element.
Aschbacher said at KSC that he would be seeking a 50% increase in exploration funding for the ministerial. That would allow continued work on the Gateway modules and extend the existing agreement to produce Orion spacecraft.
It would also allow ESA to pursue new programs that could be integrated into Artemis. One proposal, Moonlight, would establish a satellite network around the moon to provide communications and navigation services. Another, the European Large Logistics Lander or EL3, would develop a robotic lander capable of delivering 1.5 tons of cargo to the lunar surface, either for science missions or to support crewed Artemis missions.
The lander “would give Europe an autonomous ability to land on the moon, but also allow us to contribute more deeply to longer-term exploration programs,” said David Parker, director of human and robotic exploration at ESA, during a panel discussion at IAC.
If funded, those programs could help ESA become more tightly integrated into the NASA-led Artemis effort, including securing opportunities for European astronauts to walk on the moon. ESA’s existing cooperation with NASA yielded three seats on future Artemis missions. Two will likely be on Artemis 4 and 5, missions that will deliver the European modules to the Gateway. The third has not been assigned, but Aschbacher said he is lobbying for that to be on a landing mission. “What I’m asking NASA very clearly is that Europe wishes to have a European astronaut footprint on the moon before the end of this decade.”
During IAC, Aschbacher and NASA Administrator Bill Nelson signed a joint statement on lunar cooperation. The agencies did not release details about that agreement, but NASA said in a statement that it “highlighted ongoing discussions on future collaboration on the moon.”
One uncertainty is how enthusiastic European governments will be to spend money on sending astronauts to the moon later in the decade, given ongoing struggles and competing priorities.
Aschbacher was optimistic. “Europe is very excited, but maybe not everyone realizes Europe is playing such a strong role in this historic mission,” he said ahead of the first Artemis 1 launch attempt. “This is my job to make sure that people understand there’s European participation.”
One of the astronauts that could represent Europe on a future Artemis mission agreed. “There’s been a very positive trend towards human spaceflight in Europe recently, in no small part because of what we’ve been able to achieve with the ISS,” said ESA astronaut Thomas Pesquet, who has flown two long-duration ISS missions.
He thinks there’s interest in Europe for missions to the moon because of a new generation not alive during Apollo and the bigger role partners like Europe have in Artemis. “It speaks to people in Europe,” he said. “They’ll be hugely excited to see a European on the moon one day.”
Aschbacher said in August that he hoped the Artemis 1 mission would help build support for ESA’s exploration initiatives ahead of the ministerial. “This mission is crucial because this shows that this works,” he said of cooperation. “This is a real project that is flying to the moon and back. It couldn’t be any clearer than to deliver this message through the mission.”
At the time, though, he expected the Artemis 1 mission to be complete, from liftoff to splashdown, well before the ministerial conference. But two launch scrubs and other issues, including a hurricane that forced NASA to roll the rocket back to the Vehicle Assembly Building, have kept Artemis 1 on the ground. While NASA officials have not ruled out a launch in late October, a more likely opportunity is in a window that opens Nov. 12, just 10 days before ministers meet in Paris to decide how to fund those exploration plans.
Staying in the race
ESA’s planning will culminate in the two-day ministerial meeting in Paris, with debates and negotiations largely behind closed doors about what programs will be funded by what nations and at what levels.
ESA got some encouragement about its plans at the IAC when French Prime Minister Élisabeth Borne, in a speech at the conference’s opening ceremony, said the country planned to increase space spending by 25% over the next three years to more than 9 billion euros. That amount covers all French space activities, and she didn’t discuss how much of that might go towards French contributions to ESA programs.
“It’s very good news,” Philippe Baptiste, president of CNES, said of the budget increase at an IAC press conference. “We have to decide which fraction of this nine billion is dedicated to ESA and which part of it is dedicated to other kinds of programs.”
Borne said one priority would be support for launch vehicle development, long a priority for France, something Baptiste endorsed. “There is no European strategy in space if we don’t have European access to space,” said Baptiste.
ESA will also be watching Germany’s priorities closely. “I think it’s important for Europe to have big projects that show that we are engaged with space,” said Anna Christmann, coordinator for aerospace policy in the German government. She cited EL3 as one example of such a project, along with the European Union’s satellite constellation plans. “But we’ll have to see what is possible this year.”
In a session about the upcoming ministerial at IAC, Aschbacher defended the 25% increase as needed for Europe to keep pace with the United States and China and grow commercial capabilities.
“The word ‘ambition’ may sound a bit negative,” he said. “What we are aiming at doing is making sure we are not thrown out of the race.”