DLR Chairman Johann-Dietrich Woerner

PARIS — The head of the German space agency said Oct. 28 Germany remains committed to financing a $2 billion upgrade to Europe’s Ariane 5 rocket instead of proceeding directly to a new launcher design when European governments meet in late 2012 to set midterm space policy.

Johann-Dietrich Woerner, chairman of the German Aerospace Center, DLR, also expressed concern that the European Commission, which on Nov. 10 is scheduled to host a global space exploration conference, is dispersing its energies at a time when it has trouble financing higher priorities such as satellite navigation and Earth observation.

Woerner said the Third International Conference on Space Exploration, scheduled to be held in Lucca, Italy, is a worthy idea but may be premature.

“If I have understood things correctly, the European Commission has five priorities in space policy,” he said in an interview. “They are, in order, the Galileo navigation project; GMES [Global Monitoring for Environment and Security]; the international space station; launch vehicles; and exploration. We need decisions on the first two priorities before we look at the fifth.”

Europe’s Galileo satellite navigation project, whose first two operational satellites were launched Oct. 21, is lacking more than 1 billion euros ($1.4 billion) in financing needed to build and launch the full 30-satellite constellation. The European Commission hopes to secure the funding, as well as financing for Galileo’s operations and maintenance, in its next seven-year budget starting in 2014.

That budget also was supposed to finance GMES. But last summer the commission, as part of a budget-cutting exercise, removed GMES from the seven-year budget proposal.

Woerner said Germany is actively pushing the commission to restore GMES to what the commission calls its Multi-annual Financial Framework.

The 19 member governments of the European Space Agency (ESA) are scheduled to meet in late 2012 to set their own multiyear budget and spending priorities. Germany and France had agreed that a new restartable upper stage for Ariane 5, using the Vinci engine now in development, would be a top priority. Completing the stage is expected to cost about 1.5 billion euros.

The so-called Ariane 5 Mid-life Evolution (Ariane 5 ME) vehicle, which would increase Ariane 5’s payload-carrying performance to 10,500 kilograms from today’s 9,300 to 9,500 kilograms into geostationary transfer orbit, would debut in 2018.

France in the meantime has invested 250 million euros in a public bond to finance early development work on a successor to the Ariane 5 vehicle, which would be modular in design and lift satellites weighing 3,000 to 8,000 kilograms, one at a time, into the same geostationary transfer orbit. Geostationary transfer orbit is the drop-off point for satellites ultimately bound for geostationary orbit, where most telecommunications satellites operate.

French Research Minister Laurent Wauquiez, in an Oct. 18 interview in the French financial daily La Tribune, said it will not be before 2012 that France determines whether Ariane 5 ME or an Ariane 5 successor should be given priority.

“Decisions will be made in 2012,” Wauquiez said. “For France, the selection will be based on whether Ariane 5 ME and/or Ariane 6 — we need to keep the options open — correspond to the demands of government and commercial customers. At this point it is too early to determine. We are waiting for detailed evaluations of the different options.”

Woerner said an agreement struck in 2010 between French President Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel set Ariane 5 ME as the priority for the 2012 ESA conference. He said he had no reason to think that priority had changed despite the mounting budget pressures on European governments.

“I don’t believe we will stop Ariane 5 ME development and for me this is not an either/or choice,” Woerner said. “The development being done for Ariane 5 ME will be of great value to the post-Ariane 5 vehicle. We should start work on what we agreed on, and I trust the decision made by Mr. Sarkozy and Madame Merkel.”

German industry will have a substantial share of the work on the Ariane 5 ME program. Its role in a post-Ariane 5 vehicle almost certainly will be considerable as well, but at this point remains unknown.

A report on French and European space policy options to 2030 urged Europe to develop vehicles that were thoroughly European, and to oblige European governments to use these rockets, and no others, for their government satellites. European governments have financed the introduction of Russia’s Soyuz rocket to Europe’s Guiana Space Center spaceport, and starting in 2012 the Italian-led Vega rocket will begin operations with a Ukrainian upper stage.

The report, written for French Prime Minister Francois Fillon by the Center for Strategic Analysis (CEA) and titled “A Space Ambition for Europe,” urges European governments to reduce their dependence on satellite and rocket electronics components made in the United States and, to a lesser extent, Japan.

“Today, 75 percent of the electronics components on a satellite or launcher are of American origin,” the CEA report says, specifically mentioning radiation-hardened, high-speed digital signal processors and certain composite materials.

Given the unpredictability of U.S. technology export regulations, the report says, an existing task force set up by ESA, the European Commission and the European Defense Agency to evaluate technology autonomy in the space sector should be empowered to make decisions on reducing dependence on critical technologies.

Peter B. de Selding was the Paris bureau chief for SpaceNews.