BRUSSELS — A policy document designed to align the spending level and direction of public investment in space programs at the European Commission and European Space Agency (ESA) will stop short of proposing that ESA be merged into the European Commission but will make clear that, in the future, the commission decides and ESA executes, according to commission officials.
The European Space Policy document, which has been debated for three years, is expected to be approved May 22 by the European Union and ESA ministers who will be meeting together in Brussels.
Outlining the document’s contents here April 26, European Commission officials said it seeks to avoid some of the errors that have slowed and, more recently, stalled the two bodies’ first full partnership, the Galileo satellite navigation effort.
European Commission Vice President Guenter Verheugen, who is also commissioner for industry and enterprise, said the public-private partnership that has been central to Galileo’s difficulties is nowhere to be seen in the space-policy document to be adopted in May. In particular, he said he expect that the next big co-funded space venture — the Global Monitoring for Environment and Security Earth observation system (GMES) — will have zero up front private investment.
ESA and the European Commission have agreed to spend about 2.4 billion euros ($3.26 billion) on GMES in the next seven years, with about 1.8 billion euros of that sum being spent on three Sentinel satellites equipped with radar, optical and infrared sensors, and an associated ground network. The remaining funds would be spent on stimulating the development of services for these satellites.
“We are not investing in space as a luxury item — what the wealthy do when they have spare cash,” Verheugen said in a press briefing here. “This is not Starship Enterprise. We are investing in down-to-Earth services that will help keep us competitive in markets that are important, and to provide services that are important for our citizens. Look what is happening in China, India and the two historic space powers, the United States and Russia. If we don’t do this — and I emphasize this point — we in Europe risk becoming irrelevant in space.”
Speaking on background, other commission officials said they had given a close look at simply merging ESA into the commission — a decision that would hammer home the point that European Union political authorities are now taking more interest in space policy.
The problem, they said, is that the European Commission awards contracts based strictly on competitive bids and value-for-money criteria. ESA uses these metrics, but also has a guarantee that contracts will be distributed geographically in close proportion to the financial contribution made by each of the agency’s 17 member governments.
Because the European Commission has no such geographic distribution rules; putting ESA inside the European Commission would have meant that the well- developed industrial bases in France, Italy, Germany and Britain likely would win most of the contracts. The commission’s 23 other member nations would never accept that, creating program blockages and other headaches that make such a change not worth the effort — “A good idea, but unworkable,” in the words of one commission official.
ESA Director-General Jean-Jacques Dordain said the basic division of responsibility is that the commission will crystallize EU nations’ demand for space-provided goods and services, and ESA will manage production of the necessary space hardware.
Dordain said he expected that ESA will grow to perhaps 23 member nations in the next several years as European Union member states are drawn to ESA as a way of stimulating their domestic industries.
The European Space Policy document does not vary greatly from the priorities already agreed to by ESA. Ensuring a continued independent rocket-launch industry, and thus an autonomous access to space, remains a high priority.
How deeply into space affairs the European Union will go remains unclear, and will depend in part on global events and on the evolution of the budget that the commission devotes to space.
Currently the vast majority of the commission’s space budget is devoted to Galileo and GMES. But Brussels officials hope to stimulate rural broadband Internet access through a satellite initiative, and commission officials said even topics such as the international space station are now on the commission’s agenda.
The 7th Framework Program on Research, running from 2007 to 2013, features four space-investment line items that are not large now but one day may be: science, technology, exploration and launchers. These four categories in the 2007-2013 plan have no more than 210 million euros in total. But they have placed the commission at the negotiating table when, for example, Europe talks to China or the United States about lunar and Mars exploration, commission officials said.