New ESA Policy Is Good for Space Station’s Future

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A new European Space Agency (ESA) policy intended to broaden European access to the international space station for experiments is not just generous, it’s prudent: It could expand the community of stakeholders not just in the orbital outpost but also in space exploration and utilization in general. The policy, approved by all of the space station partners, applies to the 27-nation European Union and to individual European countries that currently are not contributing resources to the program; they will now be able to utilize the facility for a three-year trial period.

Considering that only 10 of ESA’s 18 member states currently contribute to the station, the policy could have a real impact. ESA officials say bringing in new users eventually could be a fresh revenue source for the space station. For example, the European Commission, the executive arm of the European Union, has agreed to make funds from its research budget available for space station experiments. This likely won’t make much of a difference in the near term, but if the pilot program is successful, it could result in substantially more funding starting in 2014, which marks the beginning of the European Commission’s next budget cycle.

Of course, any additional funding that new users bring to the space station program won’t make much of a dent in its massive operations and maintenance costs. The new policy’s greatest potential lies in broadening political support for the space station, particularly at the European Union. This is important even if the station’s biggest political and financial hurdles are behind it.

ESA, for example, is the only space station partner that has yet to approve extending station operations to 2020. Germany, which contributes 38 percent of ESA’s share of space station costs, has committed for the next decade, to the tune of 3.8 billion euros ($5.3 billion); France, second behind Germany at ESA with a 27.6 percent share, has yet to get on board. While Simonetta di Pippo, ESA’s director of human spaceflight, has expressed confidence the agency will win support from all of its participating members by December, France’s hesitation is a reminder that this cannot be taken for granted.

What remains to be seen is whether those who take ESA up on its new policy will be asked to contribute funds beyond what it costs to run their individual experiments; some station partners have suggested that eventually these new users should contribute more given the huge investment made in the outpost. That’s a fair point and worthy of discussion at some future date, but the first order of business should be getting other nations involved. This will provide immediate political benefits that could well outweigh any financial contribution these users might be able to make.