Herschel-Planck Woes Highlight Structural Problem for ESA

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The Herschel/Planck Program Investigation Group identified multiple shortcomings in the way Europe designs and builds science satellites that have been particularly painful in Herschel-Planck because of its size and technological ambition.

But while there is a consensus view of what the problems are, there appears to be no agreement on what to do about them. Some examples :

– The board of inquiry calls for the European Space Agency (ESA) to take over certain responsibilities for science satellite payload development from national science institutes. As satellite sensors become ever more sophisticated, the reasoning goes, they have become too much for even the best-equipped European national laboratories.

But to assume these new tasks, ESA would require an increase in its science budget, which unlike most ESA accounts is funded from mandatory contributions from the agency’s member states at levels determined by each nation’s gross domestic product. In recent years, ESA governments have been more likely to freeze their mandatory ESA contributions than to increase them.

– The board of inquiry says the science institutes were not up to the task of designing the interfaces between the Herschel-Planck instruments they were building and the rest of the satellite, causing further delays as the program’s main industrial contractors dealt with the consequences.

Joel Chenet, head of Earth observation and science for Herschel-Planck prime contractor Alcatel Space, said one solution would be for scientific institutes to limit their work to payload design, not manufacturing. “Science institutes have their own language, industry has its language,” Chenet said. “If industry has responsibility for end-to-end construction, it is better-equipped to handle unforeseen design problems.”

The inquiry report agrees in part, saying that, for Herschel-Planck, Alcatel “has no contract with the instrument providers and therefore no power to influence and control any changes to requirements and interfaces and delivery schedules.”

Not everyone agrees that industry should be given more control. Richard Bonneville, chief science delegate at the French space agency, CNES, said placing the work in industry’s hands “would end up costing us more money, not less. What’s more, this research-and-development knowledge base must be protected, and that’s best done in science institutes. The expertise would not necessarily be preserved by industry.”

– The inquiry board cites several occasions in which Herschel-Planck program managers, desperate to keep Herschel-Planck’s made-in-Europe pedigree, spent valuable resources in unsuccessful attempts to place the work in Europe.

Bonneville said he has the impression that prime contractors occasionally go overboard in anticipating ESA’s strict rules demanding that work shares be spread around Europe, creating overly complicated consortia.

ESA managers, including Director-General Jean-Jacques Dordain, have repeatedly said they were making their contract quotas more flexible, but the message has not gone down well with individual government delegations. The result: The quota system is just as demanding as ever.

– The inquiry says ESA and European scientists need to take the measure of the technological challenges inherent in their programs before asking for bids from industry. In Herschel-Planck’s case, the inquiry found, contracts were signed, and work begun, long before industry — companies are doing the work under cost-plus and fixed-price contracts — ran into major technological roadblocks and raised the alarm.

In one example given in the inquiry board’s report — development of an elastomer to serve as a diaphragm for the mission’s propellant tanks — substantial cost overruns and schedule slips were caused by the fact that a single engineer with knowledge of the process had resigned and gone to work for a U.S. company. This forced the program to switch to a new design under contract with the U.S. company.

But while ESA has signaled its willingness to launch technology-demonstration programs to remove risk from future missions, doing so requires much more advance planning and a stable budget for such activities .

ESA’s Science Program Committee recently agreed to delay requesting bids for the BepiColombo mission to Mercury until it has a clearer idea of whether its proposed budget of around 450 million euros ($567.7 million) is credible given the demands of the mission, scheduled for launch in 2012.

ESA