Spanish Official Says Decline in Space Spending Is Temporary

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MADRID — The head of the Spanish delegation to the European Space Agency (ESA) on Feb. 22 said the nation’s dire financial situation is forcing substantial cuts to its space program but that a return to previous spending levels should occur by 2015.

Addressing a briefing here on ESA’s Soil Moisture and Ocean Salinity (SMOS) satellite, in which Spain is a major investor and participant, Luis Valero said the reality of today’s budget cuts should not be understated, but should not be exaggerated, either.

“We are going to regularize the budget in 2014 in time for the ministerial,” Valero said, referring to a planned mid-2014 meeting of ESA governments to determine spending priorities starting in 2015. “Someone may have to help us [in other departments in the Spanish government], and we are going to have to be very selective in what programs we invest in. But we are making a big effort to maintain our position within ESA.”

Most ESA programs are managed as optional programs, in which nations contribute as much as they wish and are assured that their industry will be given contracts corresponding to that national contribution.

But ESA’s general administrative and science budgets are funded by mandatory contributions of all ESA member nations, with the contribution rate fixed by each nation’s gross domestic product.

That means Spain is obligated to contribute its 8 percent share to ESA’s science and administrative budgets, giving it less maneuvering room to invest in the optional programs.

The Spanish budget crisis was so severe that the Spanish delegation to the November ESA ministerial conference asked for, and received, permission from the other ESA nations to withhold its commitments to new programs until it received formal approval in mid-January.

That permission finally arrived, but Valero said it was not easy to get.

“I basically committed 83 million euros ($112 million) to ESA for which I had no authorization from my government,” Valero said.

The rise of Spain as a space power in ESA has been spectacular in the past decade. Spain is now ESA’s fifth-largest contributor, and Spanish industry has developed to a point where ESA would like to give Spanish companies more contracts than is possible given Spain’s ESA contribution.

“I don’t know if it is the effects of the budget crisis, but we are now seeing some really good Spanish proposals for our programs at prices that are less than what is offered by competing companies,” said Volker Liebig, director of ESA’s Earth observation program. “Given the quality and the price, really we would like to sign more contracts in Spain.”

The difference between Spain’s participation at ESA in 2012 and in 2013 reflects the sharp decline in its budget. In 2012, Spain accounted for 6.3 percent of ESA’s total budget of around 3 billion euros, with a contribution of 184 million euros. For 2013, ESA is counting on Spain to contribute 4.8 percent of the agency’s total budget, or 149.6 million euros — a 19 percent drop in one year.

ESA in the past has used its standing as an excellent credit risk to provide low-cost loans to member nations that needed it. Valero said Spain is determined to climb out of its crisis on its own and will not borrow money from ESA.

Valero, who is general secretary in Spain’s Ministry of Industry, said other Spanish government agencies that are using space technology will be asked to chip in to help Spain traverse what he said should be no more than a two-year period of budget cuts.

He said Spain is determined to maintain its standing as ESA’s fifth-largest contributor, especially now that Spanish industry is winning commercial contracts as a result of the multiyear Spanish government commitment to the space sector.

“Between 2002 and 2012 Spain invested about 1 billion euros in ESA, and between 2013 and 2022 we expect to invest another billion,” Valero said. “I have heard people say our current difficulties will make us an unreliable partner. This is not true. We will get our current problems settled. The message I am sending here today is that space technology remains a priority for this government.”