International Space Station Cutbacks Encounter German Resistance

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PARIS — The chairman of the German space agency, DLR, said Germany, which is Europe’s biggest financial contributor to the international space station, will resist any cost-cutting that threatens the station’s ability to produce science.

In a Jan. 27 interview, Johann-Dietrich Woerner said he fully supports the initiative of Jean-Jacques Dordain, director-general of the 18-nation European Space Agency (ESA), to find savings in station operations. But he also said Germany is not in the front line of those calling for cost-cutting at the station, and is not worried, at least for now, that its planned space spending in the coming years is under threat.

Woerner was particularly skeptical about proposals to lower the station’s operating costs by reducing the number of full-time astronauts to fewer than six, or by reducing the hours that the four space station control centers are on duty.

“This may be a German characteristic,” Woerner said. “It is true that our Finance Ministry would be surprised, to say the least, if I were to ask for more money than what has been allocated and what we agreed to” during ESA’s November 2008 ministerial conference, which set budget and program priorities for the coming three to five years. “But at the same time, there is no one saying we cannot meet the commitments we made. We will honor our commitments.”

While France remains ESA’s biggest contributor overall, it was Germany that signed up for more new future programs at the ESA ministerial conference than any other ESA member. In addition to these new programs, Germany has committed to paying 38 percent of ESA’s contribution to the fixed costs of operating the station, and some 25 percent of the variable costs.

Germany is also the biggest contributor to ESA’s Elips program on life sciences and physical sciences experiments in microgravity, which feeds the space station with European experiments.

ESA has budgeted some 410 million euros ($574 million) in 2010 for space station and microgravity research programs.

Dordain said ESA had agreed to freeze its cash outlays in 2010 and 2011 at 2009 levels — 3.35 billion euros per year — in response to some ESA member nations’ financial difficulties. He said no program would be canceled, but that an agency-wide effort would be made to reduce spending where possible.

Dordain said space station operations are an area of special focus in the cost-saving effort. ESA is arguing that the station’s orbital life should be extended at least until 2020. But annual operating expenses for ground teams and logistics might be reduced without undermining the station’s effectiveness as an orbital laboratory.

“I’ve always said I am in favor of using the station as long as the benefits are worth the costs,” Dordain said in a Jan. 14 press briefing. “Instead of setting a retirement date, I would prefer to compare the station’s operating costs to what it buys the space station partners. How to increase the value and reduce the costs is the issue. I hope that, together, the partners can reduce the operating costs of the station.”

One cost-saving idea has been to reduce the cost of the station’s four control centers — in the United States, Russia, Europe and Japan — by having each operate for around 12 hours per day rather than having all four on 24-hour duty. Given their geographic distribution, such a schedule would permit constant ground contact.

Another possibility that has been raised is to permit the station to operate at least occasionally with less than the standard six-astronaut crew.

Woerner said he was specifically skeptical over proposals to lower the station’s operating costs by reducing the number of full-time astronauts to fewer than six, or by reducing from four to two the number of space station operating centers that are on duty 24 hours per day.

“If the work we are doing on the station could be done robotically, we wouldn’t need the space station,” Woerner said. “It is a special laboratory where astronauts are needed. It was a real pity when we had just three astronauts at the station for a time, and they spent much of their time on station operations and maintenance. We need the [permanent crew of] six astronauts there full-time.”

The control center for Europe’s Columbus space station laboratory is located in Oberpfaffenhofen, Germany.

Woerner said that DLR is always open to ideas for trimming expenses, but that his visits to the Columbus control center suggest that the 24/7 operating model is justified.

“My assessment is that it is an efficient operation,” Woerner said. “I did check on its use and I found that people are not just sitting around there. There are no big breaks. We should be careful” before proposing cuts to an orbital facility that has only just begun full-scale operations.