France: Audit Meteosat Award

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PARIS — France is urging the 18-nation European Space Agency (ESA) to perform an audit of the contract-award process for Europe’s next generation of meteorological satellites to demonstrate the decision was made in full conformance with ESA’s rules, the head of the French space agency, CNES, said Feb. 11.

CNES President Yannickd’Escatha insisted that neither he nor the French government has any reason to believe the selection process for the Meteosat Third Generation (MTG) contract has been flawed. But he said the rumors surrounding the selection of a builder of the six MTG satellites have been so numerous and persistent that ESA needs to clear the air.

“This kind of atmosphere can be fatal for ESA if it’s not cleared up,” d’Escatha said in an interview. “For my part, I have no suspicions of any kind that the MTG process was not handled correctly. But the rumors that have circulated about favoritism one way or another are poisonous. An audit will let everyone see that the procedure and the decision were above-board. This is why we are calling for an audit — not because we have any doubts of our own.”

Following a lengthy evaluation of two bids, ESA selected ThalesAlenia Space of France and Italy to build six MTG satellites in a contract valued at about 1.4 billion euros ($1.93 billion), according to European government and industry officials. The losing bidder was Astrium Satellites of Germany.

The ThalesAlenia Space bid was made palatable to Germany — which, like France, has a 34 percent stake in the ESA portion of the MTG program — by including OHB Technology of Bremen, Germany, as a co-leader of the work. OHB is proposing to use its Small-Geo satellite platform, developed with ESA and German government support, for the MTG satellites.

The German Aerospace Center, DLR, concluded that both bids contain equally attractive work for German industry. But the Astrium bid also would give Germany the prestige that goes with having a program prime contractor, whereas the ThalesAlenia-OHB proposal gives France the prime contractor’s role.

But despite the decision, ESA officials have declined to comment publicly on the process except to say that the selection needs to be explained in depth to ESA governments, particularly France and Germany as the leading investors in the MTG program.

Industry officials said the delay in making an announcement has served to fuel further rumor that the agency was preparing to overturn or substantially modify the decision in response to political pressure.

ESA Director-General Jean-Jacques Dordain, who has said he will put his own credibility behind the agency’s choice and its evaluation procedure, was in Germany Feb. 11 discussing the MTG contract decision with German government officials.