Woerner optimistic about ESA’s upcoming ministerial meeting

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WASHINGTON — The head of the European Space Agency says he believes that member states will provide most, if not all, of the funding it is seeking for its array of programs at a ministerial meeting in November.

In an Oct. 23 interview during the 70th International Astronautical Congress here, Jan Woerner said that none of the agency’s 22 member states have, in recent discussions, expressed opposition to any of the major programs for which ESA is seeking funding for the next three years.

“I’m really optimistic,” he said. “I don’t know if we’ll get the full amount that we’re asking for, but we’ve had already several discussions with the member states about all of these programs, and there’s not a single program where the member states have said, ‘This is a bad proposal.’”

ESA’s proposal seeks 12.5 billion euros ($13.9 billion) from its member states over three years for the agency’s wide array of programs, from space science to space transportation. ESA’s members will decide their individual contributions to the proposal during a ministerial meeting Nov. 27–28 in Seville, Spain, known as Space19+.

That meeting will cap off a process that started two years ago, he said, developing a “narrative” that offers a clear picture of ESA’s programs, rather than focusing on specific programs. That led to an approach that divides ESA’s work into four pillars: space science and exploration, space safety, applications like Earth observation and telecommunications, and enabling and support programs, which includes space transportation.

Three of those pillars — space science and exploration, applications and support — will each get about 30% of the proposed budget, with the rest going to space safety. That last category includes topics such as space weather, planetary defense and orbital debris studies.

Of the four pillars, Woerner said space safety may be the most challenging to convince members to fund. He said programs can be described using one of three terms: inspiration, competitiveness and responsibility. Funding for programs that support inspiration or competitiveness have little problem winning funding, he argued.

“To get money for responsibility is very difficult,” he said. “When you talk about things that do not have a direct return on investment, like debris removal or solar flare early warning systems, then it’s a little bit more difficult to explain the reasoning. But, I’m rather optimistic that we will be successful.”

Another issue for the ministerial meeting will be a decision to participate in the Artemis program. Woerner said human exploration beyond low Earth orbit, including a role in Artemis, is one of the four cornerstones of its exploration program, alongside the International Space Station, robotic missions to the moon and Mars exploration.

NASA’s plans to accelerate its plans to return humans to the moon by four years, to 2024, has not affected ESA’s plans to participate through modules for the lunar Gateway or a cargo lander called the European Large Logistics Lander planned for after that 2024 landing. “It’s just that the Americans decided to have two Americans on the surface of the moon in 2024,” he said. “That’s a national decision.”

“We are a stable partner,” he added. “If we decide to support a program, we do support for a long period. We are preparing to be part of the Gateway. We are preparing to do logistics.”

There will be discussions, though, at the ministerial meeting among the member nations as they negotiate individual national contributions to the agency’s various programs. “Each and every member state doesn’t have the same interest, but by joining the different interests and merging the different interests, this is the beauty of ESA,” he said. “It’s a challenge, but it’s a big opportunity at the same time.”