NAPLES, Italy — European governments on Nov. 21 agreed to build the propulsion module for NASA’s Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle, overcoming the initial opposition of France and the financial stresses of Italy.

But the agency’s request for operating its own space station elements, notably the Columbus laboratory and its experiment suite, was sharply cut back and will force the agency to find savings in how it operates its space station elements.

The 20 nations of the European Space Agency (ESA) committed to financing 250 million euros ($325 million) of the Orion propulsion module. The remaining 205 million euros to complete the work, ESA said, would be committed in 2014.

Thomas Reiter, ESA’s director of human spaceflight and operations, said the guarantees made here were enough to permit him to guarantee to NASA that Europe will build the propulsion module for Orion.

ESA owes NASA about 455 million euros to cover Europe’s station operations charges between 2018 and 2020. The Orion participation will cover that debt.

In presenting its budget request here Nov. 20-21, ESA had put the Orion “barter element” inside an overall station-utilization package. The agency had asked for 1.25 billion euros, including 250 million for the Orion work, to be spent in 2013 and 2014.

Governments approved just 1.08 billion euros. Reiter said that figure includes 250 million for the Orion work, meaning that ESA will need to find savings, or delay investments, in its other station-related programs.

Some of these investments, he said, may be postponed until after 2014, when ESA governments are expected to review future station-related work, including the remaining Orion spending.

Reiter did not say what ISS spending would be cut and what could be postponed until after 2014 and a new budget.

The difficulty confronting Reiter is all the greater given that his budget needs to finance the launch of the last two Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) cargo carriers to the space station in 2013 and 2014. There are little available savings to be made in the ATV program, meaning the cuts will need to focus on the operations of the Columbus laboratory.

One of the reasons the non-Orion portion of the budget fell so far short was because Italy, which has been Europe’s third-largest space station investor after Germany and France, sharply cut its funding for the space station.

Enrico Saggese, president of the Italian Space Agency, said Italy has cut its station contributions in part because its industry has not received contracts in proportion to the Italian government’s investment.

“If you look at it, Italy’s return has been only about 60 percent, and the ISS participating nations in 2011 agreed that it should approach 100 percent,” Saggese said. “We since have decreased our participation and are now at 80 percent return, which is an improvement.”

Saggese said Italy has agreed to take a 7.7 percent share of ESA’s space station program for 2013 and 2014, plus a 10 percent stake in the Orion propulsion module. Italy’s share in the station over the years has been above 15 percent.

French Research Minister Genevieve Fioraso told reporters here Nov. 21 that France is maintaining its 27 percent investment share in the station despite the fact that, unlike Germany, France does not view the station as a strategic priority.

Faced with its own government financial stresses, Fioraso said France would finance 20 percent of the Orion work.

The German government, which had pushed hard on behalf of the station and on behalf of the partnership with NASA, is investing some 537 million euros in the station in the next two years, equivalent to nearly 50 percent of the total committed. Johann-Dietrich Woerner, chairman of the German Aerospace Center, DLR, said Germany considered the Orion work with NASA, and the support for Europe’s station facilities, as a single program.



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Peter B. de Selding was the Paris Bureau Chief for SpaceNews.