European Space Chief To Seek ISS Financial Pledges in March

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PARIS — European Space Agency (ESA) Director-General Jean-Jacques Dordain on Jan. 14 said Europe may be the last of the international space station (ISS) partners to agree to extend the station’s operational life to 2020, but it will be the first to have committed the necessary money to finance the additional operations.

Dordain acknowledged there may be an irony in the fact that ESA, the agency that called most loudly for NASA, Russia, Japan and Canada to agree to extend station operations, appears to be having the most difficulty in deciding the issue.

But unlike the case with the other partners, he said, ESA’s planned March approval of the extension will be made in conjunction with a commitment from ESA governments on which of them will pay how much to maintain and operate the facility for the additional years.

Dordain has been consistent in asking ESA member governments to settle the financing questions as part of the extension rather than leave the difficult negotiations to future years. Whether he will get his requested full commitment at the March meeting of ESA’s ruling council remains to be seen.

Also undecided is what formula will be used to determine financial contribution levels. Currently Germany, France and Italy have financed about two-thirds of Europe’s space station work. Whether they will also be responsible for that percentage of operations to 2020 is undecided, Dordain said.

At a press conference here outlining ESA’s plans for 2011, Dordain said the European version of Russia’s Soyuz rocket will make its inaugural launch from Europe’s spaceport late this summer, to be followed by the first flight of the Vega small-satellite launcher around September.

Both vehicles’ debuts have been delayed repeatedly, but Dordain said the cost overruns already have been approved and will require no special budget action in 2011, assuming both rockets remain on their current schedules.

The Vega rocket, being financed mainly by Italy, has begun an eight-month series of tests combining a mockup of the rocket and the ground infrastructure at the vehicle’s launch pad at Europe’s Guiana Space Center in French Guiana. These tests are scheduled to conclude in June. A separate series of tests of the Vega ground segment will start in February, with a planned conclusion in July.

If these parallel test programs go without major delays, the first Vega launch campaign could begin in July or August, with a launch in September.

ESA’s January press conference each year attracts journalists who cover the agency only intermittently. Inevitably, a question is asked about why Europe does not have its own manned spaceflight system. And every year, Dordain says he would like one, but that ESA governments appear unwilling to spend the needed money.

This year was different. Dordain said the goal of future manned space exploration should be a multinational effort in which duplication of effort is kept to a minimum, and only to the extent needed to provide backup in the event one system is grounded.

“Right now three nations have the ability to send astronauts into space: the United States, Russia and China,” Dordain said. “Does the world need a fourth manned-space power? As of today, I have no idea. Space transportation is about 50 percent of a space exploration program. Is it reasonable for each nation to build its own transport system? The goal is to do this together.”

Dordain noted that the United States, Europe and Japan each decided, unilaterally, to build cargo transport vehicles to the international space station. While these decisions could be justified individually, it has led to a situation that is less than optimal in terms of resource allocation.

Meanwhile, he said, the retirement of the U.S. space shuttle in the next year or so leaves the station’s partners 100 percent reliant on Russia’s Soyuz rocket.

“If the Soyuz is grounded tomorrow, we are all, collectively, grounded,” Dordain said of the station’s partners. “This is not the most efficient and rational way to manage a program.”