ESA leadership optimistic about funding as ministerial begins

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

Ministers gathered here on November 22 to kick off a two-day meeting in which ESA’s 22 full members and several associate countries will formally commit to funding programs ranging from exploration to space transportation. ESA Director General Josef Aschbacher has put forward a package of programs with a total cost of 18.7 billion euros ($19.2 billion), which is about 25% more than the previous ministerial position in 2019.

In remarks at the meeting’s opening, public session, Aschbacher made what was effectively the closing argument of the package, arguing that countries should invest more in space despite problems such as inflation, the energy crisis and the ongoing war. Ukraine.

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

In a briefing with journalists at the end of November 21, Aschbacher and ESA Council Chairwoman Anna Raatsmane said they were going to the minister feeling confident and better prepared than in previous meetings when an agreement was reached at the last minute.

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“It looks good,” the Councilor said after the last meeting to finalize the ministers’ resolutions. “Of course there are a lot of different views among the 22 member states when you discuss things, but I think they are very constructive. There is a desire to really find a way forward.

“I’ve been to many ministerial conferences myself, and I’ve never seen it happen so quickly, so early,” Ashabher said.

However, smooth planning does not guarantee that funding will be secured. At the ministerial meeting, mostly behind closed doors, there will be debates and negotiations about which programs countries will sign up for and with what amounts. One of the main issues is the request for €750 million as ESA’s contribution to the European Union’s secure connectivity constellation, recently named Infrastructure for Resilience, Interconnectivity and Security by Satellite, or IRIS².

ESA also needs 700 million euros to restructure the ExoMars mission after ESA severed ties with Russia earlier this year, although the agency is only seeking half of that at this ministerial meeting. This would allow ExoMars, previously scheduled to launch in September on a Russian rocket with a Russian landing platform, to launch no earlier than 2028 with European replacements for those Russian elements.

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Although the ESA is trying to achieve a significant increase in funding overall, it is not equally distributed among all programs. For example, ESA’s science programs will only see an increase to cover inflation.

This single funding comes after a small increase that the ESA won for science at the previous ministerial meeting in 2019 in Seville, Spain. “All of us in Seville fought very hard to achieve this modest increase, but inflation is taking it away,” Günther Hassinger, ESA’s science director, said at a Nov. 21 briefing. “The economic boundary conditions are that we can’t afford a big lift.”

He said the lack of a funding boost would not affect missions already in development, although one large X-ray telescope, called Athena, is being restructured and may be delayed due to development issues and cost increases. Hassinger said ESA will instead delay future missions.

One of the reasons for the differences is that the science programs are “mandatory” programs in which all ESA members contribute based on their gross domestic product. On the other hand, optional programs give Member States more flexibility in what programs to support and how much.

“Everyone believes that the science program is extremely important. On the other hand, the number of elective programs that really have a good purpose is growing all the time,” Raatsman said.

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The Executive Director of the European Science Foundation, Nicolas Walters, expressed concern about science funding at the opening session of the Council of Ministers. “We are concerned that the decline in purchasing power will reduce the scope and scale of the program, including core technologies for future missions, and therefore we are urging increased investment as soon as possible,” he said, calling for an increase no later than Minister of 2025.

In the opening remarks of the ministerial meeting, several Member States announced their intention to increase their contribution to ESA programmes, although they generally provided little information on the amount of the increase or how it would be distributed among these programmes.

French Economy Minister Bruno Le Maire, who chaired the council of ministers meeting, told reporters before the opening session that he was confident the ESA would fully comply with its request. “I am convinced because I believe that this space cooperation and space vision is absolutely essential for European independence,” he said. “That’s why I’m pretty sure that space funding and European ambitions will be a priority for all member states.”

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