PARIS — The European Space Agency (ESA), which counted 12 national members in the 1980s, reached
18 in
2008 and is likely on the way to 25-nation membership, faces several hurdles as it tries to attract small European nations, according to European government officials.

Many of the problems facing prospective ESA members are those that confront small nations that are currently members of the agency. These include the difficulties of developing a national space industry with a tiny space budget, and how to invest these limited resources in ways that avoid head-on competition for contracts with ESA’s well-armed larger members.

As much as current members, candidate ESA nations expect to use the agency’s geographic-distribution rules to assure that most of what they invest returns in the form of contracts to their industries.

But assuring high-technology contracts in nations with little or no aerospace industries is easier said than done, as was made clear in a two-day conference on the subject held in
, Jan. 26-27. The conference, “Models of Governance of National Space Activities,” included presentations by current and prospective ESA governments.

ESA has long experienced the natural tensions between its bigger member governments France,
and smaller nations. Daniel Furst, head of space affairs at the Swiss State Secretariat for Education and Research, said these problems could be increasing as some nations divert more of their space budgets to national programs conducted outside of ESA.

Most of the smaller nations spend the vast majority of their space budgets through ESA. Furst said Switzerland, whose annual space budget is around 100 million euros ($128 million), invests 95 percent of the total with ESA. The rest is invested in Swiss science institutes.

But according to figures Furst presented, ESA receives only 47 percent of
‘s total space spending each year. National civil space programs conducted outside of ESA account for 35 percent of the total budget, defense programs have a 13 percent share, the Eumetsat meteorological satellite organization has 4 percent and the European Commission has 1 percent.

has established a niche in atomic clocks and laser optical transmissions technologies, the government has essentially no space program of its own and its industry is generally not permitted to bid on other nations’ national programs.

“Swiss companies are losing ground because of an international trend of more and more investment in national programs and because of the lack of a Swiss national program,” Furst said in his presentation.

Opinions differ about whether there is a long-term trend toward increased spending outside ESA and relatively less devoted to ESA-managed programs. France, which is ESA’s biggest investor, has long maintained a robust non-ESA spending effort of roughly equivalent size. ESA’s second-largest investor,
, is increasing its non-ESA national budget but also is raising its ESA spending. ESA still accounts for 75 percent of the annual budget of the
, DLR.

Fonseca Colomb, who works with prospective ESA nations in the agency’s international relations department, said there is no clear evidence that space spending in
is now more likely to be done outside ESA than inside.

In a Feb. 4 interview, Fonseca Colomb said a more common issue for nations seeking ESA membership is setting aside the minimum annual funding needed to begin the membership process.

Earlier this decade ESA began a program called the Plan For European Cooperating States (PECS), which is generally a one-year adjustment followed by five years of developing the relationship between ESA and the government in question, and between that government and its national space industry.

“It is not so easy for these nations to create this new budget line,” Fonseca Colomb said. “The annual spending ranges from something close to zero to, say, a minimum of 10 million euros per year for full membership for a country the size of

, ESA’s newest member, appears to have effected a smooth transition from
member starting in 2003 to full membership in 2008.

But the Czech experience with the space program of the former
Soviet Union
may have helped in adapting the country to ESA.

Jan Kolar, managing director of the Czech Space Office, said Czech organizations had produced space-station furnaces, small satellites and instruments on 23 Interkosmos science satellites between the 1960s and mid-1990s.

Czech officials invested 9.7 million euros in PECS-related ESA programs between 2003 and 2008, of which 12 percent was spent on ESA administrative charges, Kolar said.

Both, director of the Hungarian Space Office, said
spent just 7 percent of its
budget on administrative costs. In part because of a change in Hungarian government policy, Hungary has delayed becoming a full ESA member despite having joined PECS in 2003. It has now committed itself to an additional five-year

Fonseca Colomb said
nations are usually billed administrative overhead charges starting at 7 percent of their total budget, with the figure gradually rising toward the objective of 15-20 percent, the rate paid by ESA members. Before the full-membership rate is reached, ESA’s current members are essentially subsidizing the PECS program.