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Ariane 6
A model of an Ariane 6 greets visitors to the International Astronautical Congress in Paris this week. Keeping that vehicle on track is one of the priorities of the upcoming ESA ministerial council meeting that will fund agency programs for the next three years. (credit: J. Foust)

Europe seeks to stay in the space race

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The 73rd International Astronautical Congress (IAC) started in Paris not on a Monday, as is traditionally the case, but instead on Sunday. The shift was reportedly a scheduling issue: the pandemic that delayed the 2020 IAC in Dubai to 2021 also delayed the 2021 IAC in Paris to 2022, and the only dates available at the convention center that straddles the Boulevard Périphérique, several kilometers from the heart of Paris, required the event to start over the weekend.

“You realize, especially in Europe, how dependent we are in space on Russia,” said Aschbacher. “We had to decouple our cooperation and our links with Russia very, very quickly. This is something that is not easy.”

That scheduling has not deterred turnout: more than 8,700 people have registered for the five-day conference, a record. (Being in Paris helps, no doubt; the event may not be so popular next year in Baku, Azerbaijan.) A large fraction of them made it to the opening ceremony at 9:30 a.m. on Sunday morning for the usual pomp and circumstance and entertainment, including a performance by the French Olympic breakdancing team.

There was also, though, politics. The event featured several French and European Union officials who used the ceremonies not just to welcome attendees to Paris and offer generic platitudes about space but also to make political points. Valérie Pécresse, president of the regional council of Île-de-France, the region that includes Paris, called for greater European support for the Ariane 6.

She was also critical of what she saw as unchecked commercial activities in space. “Space should not be dominated by market forces,” said Pécresse, an unsuccessful conservative candidate for the French presidency earlier this year. “Space should not be a hunting ground for billionaires.”

Later, Élisabeth Borne, the French prime minister, spoke at the opening ceremony, using the event to announce a major increase in government spending for space. She announced the government would allocate more than nine billion euros to space programs for the next three years, funding that would go to the French space agency CNES as well as France’s contribution to the European Space Agency (ESA). That funding represented a 25% increase.

“It’s very good news,” Philippe Baptiste, president of CNES, said of the budget increase at a press conference later in the day. He added, though, that the allocation of funding to CNES, ESA and other initiatives remained to be determined.

That announcement, and the conference itself, comes at a critical time for ESA. The agency is preparing for its triennial ministerial council meeting in November where its 22 member states will meet and make funding decisions for the agency for the next three years. At the meeting there are debates and deals made behind closed doors about both existing programs and new proposals.

“Our proposal of a 25% increase is more or less keeping pace” with the US and China, said Aschbacher. “What we are aiming at doing is making sure we are not thrown out of the race.”

The ministerial is difficult enough in normal times, like the last one in 2019 (see “Funding Europe’s space ambitions”, The Space Review, December 2, 2019.) The upcoming meeting faces even bigger challenges, though. European economies are struggling from the aftermath of the pandemic and, more recently, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Inflation, recession fears, and increasing concerns about an energy crisis this winter because of a cutoff in Russian oil and gas are all wearing on Europeans.

The Russian invasion also affected ESA, wiping out significant levels of cooperation. ESA’s ExoMars rover mission, which was to launch this month on a Proton rocket, is instead still on the ground, its launch delayed until at least 2026. The loss of Soyuz has forced ESA to scramble to find new rides for several missions, a problem exacerbated by continued delays in the Ariane 6, whose first launch is now not expected until some time next year.

“You realize, especially in Europe, how dependent we are in space on Russia,” said Josef Aschbacher, director general of ESA. “We had to decouple our cooperation and our links with Russia very, very quickly. This is something that is not easy.”

ESA is leaning into those challenges. Speaking last week at another conference, World Satellite Business Week, Aschbacher announced ESA would request more than 18 billion euros over the next three years from member states at the ministerial (specifically, he later tweeted, 18.7 billion euros.) That would be a 25% increase over what ESA secured at the previous ministerial in 2019.

“I’m putting together a very ambitious package despite the current situation, despite the economic difficulties we have, because I firmly believe that, if we are not doing that, we will make a huge mistake in Europe,” he said.

That proposed increase is a response to ESA’s previous dependence on Russia, he said. “This realization of the dependence that we had is certainly a trigger and a message that I get very clearly, to make a package of ministerial proposals that is resilient, increases our independence and strengthens our European space sector overall to make sure that we can do what we need to do.”

Exactly what is in the ministerial remains under wraps. However, Aschbacher and other ESA officials have talked about increases in existing science, technology, and exploration programs, along with investment in new ones. That includes, on the exploration side, work on a large cargo lunar lander called the European Large Logistics Lander that could support later Artemis missions, as well as Moonlight, a lunar satellite communications network.

Asking for more money as European tighten their belts is no easy feat, with Aschbacher calling it more challenging than any previous ministerial. “This is not a good boundary condition for a ministerial conference,” he acknowledged. “Still, I believe that, because of this situation in which we are, we have to invest in space.”

“We are in a very intense phase of defining the elements of our program proposals to ensure countries’ interests,” he said at Sunday’s IAC press conference. “The members states are defining back home their contributions and their roles in the various programs.”

“We all hope that, despite the circumstances, as I mentioned before, the importance of space is recognized by the finance ministers, because, at the end of the day, they are the ones providing the funding,” he added.

In that regard, the French prime minister’s announcement earlier in the day was encouraging, provided France’s contribution to ESA increases in lockstep with its overall spending increase. Whether other major ESA nations follow suit, and how they decide to allocate their budgets, remains to be seen.

“Our top priority in Germany is a strong ESA,” said Walther Pelzer, director general of the German Space Agency, during a roundtable about the ministerial at IAC on Sunday. That means showing a united front in Europe that has maintained since the start of the war, he said.

“The big challenge at the end is to get all the member states going in the same direction,” said Anna Rathsman.

Those countries, though, will still be pushing for their own priorities at the ministerial, arguing they are as vital to European interests as they are to their own national interests. “There is some kind of love story between France and launchers,” said CNES’s Baptiste at the roundtable. (“Love and hate,” he added.) “We have always invested a lot on launchers. This is something which we believe in, because there is no European strategy in space if you don’t have European access to space.”

Aschbacher used the session to defend the proposed 25% budget increase, saying it was necessary to keep up with other major space powers, notably the United States and China. (NASA received about $24 billion in fiscal year 2022, an increase of 12% from 2019.) “Our proposal of a 25% increase is more or less keeping pace,” he said. “What we are aiming at doing is making sure we are not thrown out of the race.”

There is still a lot of work, and a lot of lobbying, to be done before ministers gather in Paris in late November for the council meeting. “The big challenge at the end is to get all the member states going in the same direction,” said Anna Rathsman, director general of the Swedish National Space Agency and chair of the ESA Council.

Aschbacher said he’ll be satisfied with the outcome of that meeting, one that will decide the fate of ESA programs for the next three years, if those ministers are satisfied. “The measure of success” he said, “is that the member states, when they come to the table at the ministerial level, are satisfied at the end of the day, and think they’ve done the right thing and the right decisions, and go home smiling.”

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