European Debt Loads Could Constrain ESA

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A multiyear space-program budget agreed to by European governments in 2008, which was already feeling the strains of government spending restrictions in late 2009, is likely to be further stressed in the coming months, European government officials say.

As government debt loads have taken center stage from the financial and economic crisis, the question is whether the 18 nations of the European Space Agency (ESA) can maintain the spending level they committed to at their November 2008 ministerial conference in The Hague, Netherlands.

Spain, whose economy appears to be the weakest among the major ESA contributors, is at the top of the list of governments viewed as most likely to ask for a slowdown in ESA spending.

ESA already has agreed to freeze spending in 2010 and 2011 at 2009’s level — 3.35 billion euros ($4.2 billion) — in anticipation of budget cutbacks in one or more of its member states. But 2009 was a record spending year, and whether the freeze will be enough is uncertain.

“These are tough economic circumstances, said Maurici Lucena, director-general of Spain’s CDTI agency, which is responsible for space spending. “Will countries maintain their current levels of space spending? This should not be taken for granted.”

Spanish space investment increased by 44 percent in the past decade. Its investment in ESA in 2010 is expected to be about 195 million euros, making it ESA’s fifth-largest contributor after France, Germany, Italy and Britain.

ESA officials say that with the decision to limit spending to the level of 2009, the financial situation for 2010 looks stable, at least for the moment. But they hesitate to predict whether that will remain the case for 2011.

While speaking only on behalf of Spain, Lucena’s reasoning applies to every other government weighing where to make unavoidable budget cuts.

“We need to explain clearly why public investment in space is important,” he said. “There are three factors to consider. First, when you look at the data, space really does foster innovation. Space engineers work at the edge of technology. Invest a euro in space and you will get more than one euro in return. The second area is international cooperation, where investment can lead to increased productivity by sharing the costs. Third, space can be sold as a tool for sustainable development. It is in fact an instrument to overcome the financial crisis we are in.

“If we don’t make this case, then space investment will be reduced as a consequence of this economic crisis.”