ESA leadership is optimistic about funding as ministerial work begins

PARIS – As European ministers meet to allocate funding for the European Space Agency’s programs for the next three years, the agency’s leadership is optimistic about winning support for its priorities.

Ministers convened here on November 22 to kick off a two-day meeting in which the European Space Agency’s 22 member states and several formal associates will commit to funding programs from exploration to space transportation. The Director General of the European Space Agency, Josef Achbacher, put forward a package of programs at a total cost of 18.7 billion euros ($19.2 billion), an increase of about 25% over the previous ministerial in 2019.

In comments in the meeting’s opening plenary session, Aschbacher made what was, in effect, a closing argument for this package, arguing that nations need to invest more in space despite challenges such as inflation, the energy crisis, and the ongoing war in Ukraine.

We must make bold decisions today. As I said before, we must invest in the future because we are in a crisis,” he said after outlining the components of the program he is asking members to finance.

In a briefing with reporters late November 21, Ashbacher and Anna Rathsmann, chair of the European Space Agency’s board, said they went into the ministerial meeting feeling confident and better prepared than in previous meetings, when agreements came together at the last minute.

“It looks good,” Ratsman said after the last meeting to finalize the decisions of the ministerial meeting. “There are a lot of different opinions among the 22 member states, of course, when they discuss things, but I think it’s very constructive. There is a willingness to really find a way forward.”

“I myself have attended many ministerial conferences, and I have never seen them go so quickly, so early,” said Ashabcher.

However, smooth planning does not guarantee that financing will follow. The Ministerial Conference will feature, largely behind closed doors, discussions and negotiations on which programs countries will participate in and in what amounts. Among the main issues is the request for 750 million euros in contribution from the European Space Agency to the Constellation Safe Connection in the European Union, It was recently named Infrastructure for Resilience, Connectivity, and Security by Satellite or IRIS².

The European Space Agency also needs €700 million to restructure the ExoMars mission after the European Space Agency cut ties with Russia earlier this year, though the agency is looking for only half of that at this ministerial meeting. This will enable ExoMars, which was previously scheduled to launch in September on a Russian rocket with a Russian lander, to be launched before 2028 with European replacements for those Russian elements.

And while the European Space Agency is seeking a significant increase in funding overall, that is not evenly distributed among all programmes. For example, the European Space Agency’s science programs would get a raise just enough to cover inflation.

This firm funding follows a modest raise that the European Space Agency for Science won at the previous ministerial meeting in 2019 in Seville, Spain. “We all struggled very hard in Seville to get this modest increase, but inflation is taking it away,” said Guenter Hasinger, ESA’s director of science, at a November 21 news conference. “Economic boundary conditions make us can not afford a big rise.”

He said the lack of increased funding would not affect missions already in development, though a large telescope, an X-ray telescope called Athena, is undergoing restructuring and delays are likely due to development issues and cost growth. Hasinger said the European Space Agency will instead delay subsequent missions.

One reason for this disparity is that science programs are “mandatory” programmes, to which all ESA members contribute based on their GDP. On the other hand, elective programs give Member States more flexibility in deciding which programs to support and how much.

“Everyone thinks the science program is very important. On the other hand, the number of elective programs that have a good goal is growing all the time,” Rathsmann said.

Nicholas Walter, CEO of the European Science Foundation, raised concerns about science funding in his remarks at the opening session of the Ministerial Council. “We are concerned that reduced purchasing power will reduce the scope and scale of the programme, including enabling technologies for future missions, and therefore encourage increased investment as soon as possible,” he said, calling for that increase no later than 2025 Ministerial.

In opening remarks at the ministerial meeting, several member states announced their intention to increase their contributions to ESA programmes, although there were few details on how much the increase would be or how it would be allocated among those programmes.

French Economy Minister Bruno Le Maire, who hosted the ministerial council meeting, told reporters before the opening session that he was confident ESA would secure its full request. “I am confident because I believe that this space cooperation and this space vision are absolutely essential for the independence of Europe,” he said. “I am therefore very confident that financing European space and ambitions will be a priority for all member states.”

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