Minister Stirs Questions About Direction of French Space Policy

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Remarks by the new French research minister have raised questions about the direction of space policy in the country that is Europe’s biggest spender on space programs.

Research Minister Francois Goulard, speaking Nov. 29 in advance of a meeting of European ministers Dec. 5-6 that is intended to set Europe’s space direction, said France would have no autonomous space policy outside the 17-nation European Space Agency (ESA) and the 25-nation European Union.

“The place France occupies [in Europe’s space sector] must not be allowed to become an obstacle for Europe,” Goulard said in a press briefing celebrating the 25th anniversary of the Arianespace commercial-launch consortium. “We have no hegemonic ambitions. That needs to be made clear. No nation can pretend to have an autonomous space policy. This is the most foolish kind of dream.”

One ESA manager, informed of Goulard’s remarks, said: “The French minister really said that?” Goulard assumed his post in June and since then has had little to say in public about space issues. His ministry, alongside the French Defense Ministry, has responsibility for the French space agency, CNES, and its strategic orientation.

France is the biggest contributor to ESA. But unlike most other ESA member states, France reserves half its annual budget for non-ESA missions. These are French-only projects or bilateral programs with the United States, Russia, India and others.

CNES President Yannick d’Escatha, who in the past has highlighted France’s determination to maintain its own space program in addition to its role inside ESA, on Nov. 29 sought to portray this policy in a different light.

Speaking at the same press briefing as Goulard, d’Escatha said almost every space endeavor undertaken by France has a European angle, even those that are not done inside ESA. He cited the Megha-Tropiques Earth observation satellite that CNES and the Indian Space Research Organization are financing as an example: “Megha-Tropiques is part of Europe’s GMES [Global Monitoring for Environment and Security] program,” d’Escatha said.

Under a six-year contract signed with the French government in April, France’s ESA contribution will remain flat at 685 million euros ($803 million) per year through 2010, while the non-ESA budget, which is 681 million euros this year, will rise by 1.5 percent per year.

If these figures remain constant, by 2010 France’s national space budget will account for about 52 percent of the country’s total spending on space projects, with ESA projects making up the remaining 48 percent.

CNES officials recently outlined their plans for future space-science missions that, like the Corot astronomy satellite set for launch in 2006, would be initiated and managed by CNES — even if other nations eventually contribute as junior partners.

CNES officials say the agency’s closer ties to the Defense Ministry in the coming years will require that certain barriers are maintained between what CNES does inside ESA and what it does on its own. France so far has met with little success in urging that European governments join in a robust military space program.

In addition, CNES officials occasionally have expressed frustration ESA’s spending policy has the effect of propping up companies that would not survive without ESA funds, instead of reinforcing companies — many of them French — that are commercially viable.

French industry’s dominant role in Europe has generated fear and resentment among smaller ESA member states. They fear that, if given the chance, France’s domestic space companies would steamroll smaller companies in other parts of Europe. ESA officials say this concern is one reason why ESA has been unable to make its contract policy more flexible to permit competition among bidders.

In the late 1990s, French enthusiasm for going outside ESA reached a peak with Research Minister Claude Allegre, who backed a multibillion-dollar bilateral effort with NASA to collect Mars soil samples and return them to Earth. NASA and CNES have since shelved the project, and CNES officials say programs of that size in the future must be pursued inside ESA.