European Space Agency Seeks To Lessen Its Dependence on U.S. Propulsion Providers

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SAN SEBASTIAN, Spain — The European Space Agency (ESA) is promoting the creation of European expertise in certain propulsion technologies to avoid technology-transfer roadblocks associated with U.S. components even if the U.S. hardware is substantially less expensive, ESA officials said.

These officials said that they have been forced into the policy by the fact that for its satellite programs, ESA requires that it be able to understand the source of a problem that crops up either in ground testing or in orbit.

U.S. International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR) policy makes such a post-failure review impossible, they said.

“If the U.S. has already developed something and can sell it to us for half of what it would cost us to build it, why should we develop it? We can use our resources elsewhere,” said Jose Gonzalez del Amo of ESA’s European Space Research and Technology Centre (ESTEC) in Noordwijk, Netherlands. “The problem is that if a component doesn’t work, we need to understand what happened, and ITAR prevents this.”

As a result, ESA is financing development of satellite regulators, latch and flow-control valves and other components instead of continuing to rely on U.S. goods, Gonzalez del Amo said here May 4 during the Space Propulsion 2010 conference organized by the French Aeronautics and Astronautics Association.

It is not just satellite components. The 18-nation ESA’s general policy of nondependence — this can mean independence or maintaining at least two competing non-European suppliers — has worked its way into most of the agency’s programs in the decade since ITAR, which classifies most satellite components as weaponry, became U.S. policy.

Mark Ford, head of ESTEC’s propulsion engineering section, said the agency is determined to continue to wean itself from dependence on U.S. suppliers for propulsion technologies to avoid ITAR-related complications.

ESA and other European government officials have long said Europe’s space budget is too small to pursue autonomy in all sectors. Besides the cost of developing the technology, maintaining production lines for these components is often difficult given Europe’s relatively low demand, they said.

Using U.S. components has been especially attractive in recent years because of the strength of the euro relative to the U.S. dollar, which gives U.S. exports an advantage over European suppliers.

Michel Courtois, ESA’s director of technical and quality management, said the large investment needed to design and test new propulsion technologies, coupled with the low price of U.S. and other non-European hardware, holds down market prices and discourages new European market participants.

Despite this, Courtois said in a written presentation to the conference, ESA is moving toward “full qualification of European feed system components — regulators, latch valves and flow control valves — to remove ITAR dependencies.”

Gonzalez del Amo said several companies are already under ESA contract to develop propulsion-related systems that are considered critical for future European missions and are available in the United States but only under restrictive conditions. The companies include Thales Alenia Space Italy and AMPAC In-Space Propulsion of Britain.

He said a European program he declined to name encountered a problem with a valve built by a U.S. company. In response to a request for possible causes of the anomaly, he said, “we got a list of the component’s performance in return. We eventually solved the problem [without the U.S. manufacturer’s assistance], but this was not acceptable.”

ESA and other European government officials have long said their limited resources make them willing partners in international programs. This remains true, they say. But with each passing year, decisions based on a policy to minimize ITAR constraints become harder to reverse as investment in equipment suppliers is completed and the new production lines demand business.

Courtois said ESA will be wary of entering into program agreements that have the effect of keeping Europe from investing in technology it will need over the long term.

“Due to cost of development, international partnerships may be desirable, but this must be balanced against requirements for European nondependence and challenges in shaping up effective collaborations,” Courtois said. “U.S. dual-use propulsion technologies are unobtainable from non-U.S. customers. Even on products already obtained by European industry, unavailability of information imposes constraints on their use, in particular in the case of failures.”