Facing the Tough Decisions

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  Space News Business

Facing the Tough Decisions

By PETER B. de SELDING
Space News Staff Writer
posted: 16 January 2006
02:41 pm ET


Profile: Genevieve Debouzy

President, ESA Science Program Committee and CNES Deputy Director for Strategy and Programs

Backers of Europe’s space science program felt fortunate Dec. 6 when European Space Agency (ESA) governments agreed to stop the decade-long slide in science spending by providing the equivalent of an annual inflation adjustment between 2006 and 2010.

In today’s Europe, keeping up with inflation is about all space scientists can hope for despite the fact that their program is on an unprecedented winning streak. The Huygens probe that descended into the atmosphere of Saturn’s moon Titan, the Mars Express orbiter and the Soho solar observatory are the most visible examples of a program that has had a near-perfect performance rate for the last 15 years. The one major loss — the Cluster satellite quartet destroyed in a 1996 rocket failure — was replaced .

In spite of this, European governments have been unable to reach agreement on any real increases in the space science budget, which is ESA’s only program funded by mandatory contributions from the agency’s 17 member nations.

The lack of investment over the past decade is likely to force ESA’s Science Program Committee (SPC) to deliver some bad news to a yet-unidentified group of space scientists this year: Either one of the big missions now being planned will be scrapped or delayed, or there will be no new missions approved this decade.

As SPC president, Genevieve Debouzy will have the difficult job of finding a consensus as to where the hammer will fall. Debouzy spoke with Space News staff writer Peter B. de Selding.

The European space science program has been given a 2.5-percent annual adjustment from 2006 to 2010, meaning it will keep up with inflation only. Is this a victory for science?

It’s a relative success. A few months ago even the 2.5-percent increase would have been viewed as unrealistic. And at least now we have stopped the budget erosion that has been occurring in recent years.

Despite the program’s successes, apparently no one even imagined asking for a budget increase. Why?

One reason may be what happened at the last ministerial meeting, in Edinburgh in 2001. The program directorate requested a 5-percent annual increase and ESA government delegations’ reaction was one of brutal refusal. That shook people up, and perhaps made them less bold. No one wanted to repeat that experience.

Even with this budget adjustment, the program cannot afford the missions currently being planned, much less a debut of the Cosmic Vision 2015-2025 program and its fresh round of satellites, according to ESA estimates. Do you share this assessment?

Yes. There is a consensus in the scientific community concerning the nature of the problem. The current estimate is that our program’s costs, including safety margins, are about 400 million euros ($486 million) in excess of our financing — the equivalent of a full year’s ESA science budget.

To complete the missions now in preparation, we cannot make another call for proposals until 2013. This is unacceptable. Try telling a young scientist to go away and come back in the middle of the next decade and see what the result is.

To maintain the planned call for mission ideas for Cosmic Vision 2015-2025, will you eliminate or substantially delay one of the four satellites planned whose construction has not begun?

That is something the SPC will have to evaluate once we have the consensus view of the scientific community. Until then, no one can say what we will do. It’s true we have four missions — Bepi Colombo, Gaia, Solar Orbiter and Lisa — that are early enough in their contract cycle that they could be delayed. But scientists have been working on some of these missions for six years or so. How could we explain to them that their mission has been scrapped to make way for something else?

So if you cannot move forward for lack or resources, and cannot move backward to cut planned expenditures, what can you do?

I cannot prejudge what the SPC will decide. The scientific community in January will need to give us some idea of what it proposes. Only then will we determine a way forward.

Cost overruns in the Herschel-Planck mission are a big factor in the current difficulty. What changes have been made by the SPC to prevent this from happening again?

With Herschel-Planck we relied too much on target costs rather than the real costs. For future missions we will systematically have cost-at-completion assessments made at key points in development. The problem is that we are usually operating at a technical frontier. Unknowns are embedded into what we do. So we cannot avoid some unhappy surprises in cost estimates. But we can better plan for these surprises.

Will the new policy on cost management force the SPC to become less daring in its choice of missions?

It’s a question of ambition. We need to adjust our ambition to keep within our budget, but we cannot remove ambition from our program. We have a financing level through 2010. It is what it is. Now we must decide: What can we do with this?

The idea of an outside review of the science program has been raised. Are you favorable?

Yes, the SPC likely will ask the ESA executive in February to appoint an outside team to take a fresh look at our program, our goals and our budget, and make proposals on how to move forward. We want an independent assessment of the science program’s philosophy. The last review was in 1989. It’s time for a new look.

Will the outside review board recommend mission choices?

No, that will not be part of its mandate. The idea is to suggest an approach to our overall program in light of our budget realities. Mission selection in the science program is handled in a very open and transparent fashion following a debate in the scientific community. There is no need to reform the program-selection process.

Would the science program benefit from becoming at least partially an optional program at ESA, so that member nations could select a la carte what missions they will join?

The fact that science is the only obligatory program at ESA is a source of its strength. It’s true that it does occasionally cause difficulties — member states don’t like to be locked in to a multi year spending requirement. But we would lose more than we would gain by making science an optional program.

ESA governments recently agreed to spend more than 700 million euros on the ExoMars Mars lander as an optional program. Isn’t this an example of making science spending more acceptable by spinning off programs individually for budget approval?

ExoMars is certainly a science mission. But outside of Mars exploration, I don’t see any other areas where this example would apply. Mars is a special case.