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ESA Ministerial
Representatives of ESA’s 22 member states, along with associated states and other observers, attend the opening session of the 2022 ministerial meeting November 22 in Paris. (credit: ESA/P. Sebirot)

For ESA, a good enough budget

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As officials arrived in Paris last week for the triennial ministerial council meeting of the European Space Agency, the agency’s leadership was confident despite the turmoil on the continent. Earlier in the fall, ESA put forward an ambitious plan calling for a 25% budget increase over the last ministerial in 2019 even amid challenges facing European nations that include high inflation, an energy crisis and the ongoing war in Ukraine (see “Europe seeks to stay in the space race,” The Space Review, September 19, 2022.)

“We all fought very hard in Seville to get this modest increase, but inflation is taking it away,” Hasinger said of ESA’s science budget. “The economic boundary conditions are such that we cannot afford a big uplift.”

ESA officials finalized those preparations the day before the meeting started. “I have been at many ministerial conferences myself, and I've never seen it go so fast,” Josef Aschbacher, ESA’s director general, told reporters at a briefing late Monday, on the eve of the meeting. “Usually we have emergency meetings until midnight or three o’clock in the morning on one or two or three topics. There are still lots of meetings ongoing and discussions, believe me, but at least on the legal, and I would say political, point of view, I think we have done the work.”

Sweden’s Anna Rathsman, chair of the ESA Council, agreed. “It looks actually very good for tomorrow,” she said, calling Monday’s final preparatory meeting “the easiest council meeting I’ve ever had.”

ESA’s final proposal to its member states sought a little more than 18.5 billion euros (US$19.1 billion) over three years, more than 25% above what the agency received at the previous ministerial in Seville, Spain, in 2019 (see “Funding Europe’s space ambitions”, The Space Review, December 2, 2019).

A major theme of that funding increase was bolstering European independence in space. The proposal included 750 million euros to contribute to a European Union led “secure connectivity” satellite constellation recently named Infrastructure for Resilience, Interconnectivity and Security by Satellite or IRIS². More funding would go to the Ariane 6 and Vega C launch vehicles as they transition from development to operations. ESA also sought funding to revamp its ExoMars mission after terminating cooperation with Russia earlier this year, stranding the mission’s Rosalind Franklin rover.

Other aspects of the proposal emphasized cooperation, particularly with NASA on the Artemis campaign of lunar exploration. ESA requested funding to start development of the European Large Logistics Lander, or Argonaut, a lander that could deliver up to a ton and a half of cargo to the lunar surface. It also pushed for funding for Moonlight, an initiative to develop a communications and navigation satellite network at the Moon that could be used by government and commercial missions. ESA proposed offering those capabilities to NASA in exchange for additional seats on later Artemis missions, including those to the lunar surface.

Not every ESA program would see the same increase, though. ESA’s science programs would see only an increase to keep pace with inflation, after winning a larger budget increase three years earlier. “We all fought very hard in Seville to get this modest increase, but inflation is taking it away,” said Günther Hasinger, ESA science director, at that briefing. “The economic boundary conditions are such that we cannot afford a big uplift.”

That flat budget would slow down some missions still in early stages of development, like an X-ray observatory called Athena (which was already being restructured after suffering cost overruns) and the Laser Interferometer Space Antenna (LISA) gravitational wave observatory, he said, while sparing those further along in development. “We are really trying to implement the adopted missions as well as possible.”

Unlike most other ESA programs, science is considered “mandatory”: countries contribute funding based on their GDP, rather than decide to subscribe to, and fund, specific initiatives. That provides a level of stability needed for long-term projects, argued Aschbacher, while other programs can fluctuate.

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

Countries contribute to optional programs with an expectation they will get a share of the contracts that come out of it proportional to their contribution, a concept called geographic return. But as the ministerial meeting started Tuesday, three of ESA’s biggest countries suggested revisiting that concept in the area of launch vehicles.

“I’m confident because I think that this space cooperation, and this space vision, is absolutely key for the independence of Europe,” said Le Maire.

Ministers from France, Germany, and Italy announced the signing of an agreement regarding cooperation on future launch vehicle development. They sought a new framework for public financing of the Ariane 6 and Vega C that incentivized cost reductions for the rockets to make them more competitive.

“This was quite important because this political understanding and agreement unblocks other discussions that then have an influence on subscriptions,” Aschabcher said as ministers were trying to raise the final part of a 600-million-euro package to fund a “transition program” for the Ariane 6, whose first launch has slipped to at least late 2023.

The agreement also mentioned that, as part of the framework, the countries would start “a reflection with concerned states on the conditions for the industrial and geographical distribution of work in exploitation.” The French economic ministry, in its statement about the agreement, specifically mentioned competitiveness would be achieved in part by a change in the rules for geographic return, which France in particular has argued makes launch vehicle development less efficient.

An ESA source said any change to geographic return policies would be a long-term effort and require approval of the agency’s 22 member states. A more likely outcome, that source suggested, would be reviewing those policies for future launch vehicle projects before they begin.

ESA Ministerial
Josef Aschbacher, ESA director general, presents the agency’s proposed budget during the opening session of the ministerial council meeting. (credit: ESA/P. Sebirot)

“A very good result”

On Tuesday morning, ministers filed into the Grand Palais Éphémère, with the Eiffel Tower as a backdrop, for the start of the two-day meeting. “I’m confident because I think that this space cooperation, and this space vision, is absolutely key for the independence of Europe,” Bruno Le Maire, French economic minister, told reporters as he arrived for the opening session when asked about prospects for funding ESA’s budget proposal. “I’m quite confident that the financing of the European ambition will be a priority for all the member states.”

After some introductory remarks to start the public portion of the ministerial council meeting, Aschbacher got up to make a closing argument for ESA’s €18.5 billion budget. Pacing around the interior of the tables arranged in a large rectangle in the hall, he talked through the key elements of the proposal for one final time.

“Today, we are in a very difficult situation,” he said. “We have geopolitical tensions that are the highest since World War II. We have very high inflation. We have an energy crisis. And, on top, we have climate change as a very large challenge.”

“But, there are ways out. Investing in space will help us overcome this crisis,” he said. “This is where our ministers here in the room can make a change.”

He then walked through all the major elements of the budget. “Ladies and gentlemen, we must take bold decisions today,” he said as he wrapped up his remarks. “We must invest in the future because we are in a crisis.”

After his speech and other opening remarks, including brief statements from all the member states, the discussions continued behind closed doors, as countries made initial pledges to various programs and negotiated with one another contributions to others, a process that went through a series of rounds.

“Investing in space will help us overcome this crisis,” Aschbacher said. “This is where our ministers here in the room can make a change.”

“I think it’s fair to say that we are advancing well,” Aschbacher told reporters at the end of the day Tuesday. He declined to give specific amounts members had pledged to various programs, since the discussions were ongoing. “I would be cautiously optimistic to see a good result tomorrow.”

He acknowledged, though, that some programs were lagging in their subscriptions. He said he wanted to focus more on the overall exploration package, which included the ExoMars mission and the Argonaut lander among other efforts, but didn’t say if any specific items in that package were a concern.

“Another that surprises me a bit,” he said, “is FutureEO.” That is a series of new Earth observation missions ESA was seeking funding for. “Many ministers have declared climate change and sustainability their top priority, and I also emphasize this aspect, but the subscription level is not yet at the level where it should be.”

The crisis facing Europe, the reason he said in his opening remarks is why Europe should invest in space, might have been hindering some countries, he acknowledged. “The timing of this conference is not the best one, to be blunt,” he said, citing the economic and security issues Europe was facing. “The crisis is certainly, I would say, a factor that means we will probably not reach the level of subscription that we could get.”

Those discussions continued into the next morning, even going beyond a midday deadline (the result, reportedly, of a misunderstanding between France and Italy on launch vehicle contributions.) Wednesday afternoon, ESA held a press conference before a packed audience—many there for the announcement of a new astronaut class that would immediately follow the briefing—to announce the results of the ministerial meeting.

ESA ended up securing from its member states 16.9 billion euros, an increase of nearly 17% from 2019 but falling nearly 10% short of its goal going into the meeting. That was enough for ESA and other European officials to declare victory, even if they did not get all the funding they wanted.

“Europe has given itself the funds and the technical, scientific, and financial resources so that it can compete with China and the US, the other two space powers on the planet,” Le Maire, the French minister, said.

“I’m delighted that we have a very good result at this conference,” said Anna Christmann, the German government’s federal aerospace coordinator who served as chair of the ministerial meeting. “We showed this clear signal that we want to be a strong part in the global development of space technology.”

“The result is good,” Aschbacher said, mentioning all the external pressures on the budget proposal. “I have to say that I’m very impressed, very impressed, by this figure.”

He said the agency was able to secure its major priorities: ExoMars would continue as a European mission launching in 2028 (with some assistance from NASA), work would begin on the Argonaut landers, Ariane 6 and Vega C would get their needed support, ESA would commit to an International Space Station extension to 2030, and ESA would contribute funding for IRIS², among others.

He emphasized that no proposed programs failed to make the cut. “Nothing has been curtailed. Some of it was reduced slightly in scope,” he said. “Nothing had to be deleted or taken out of the portfolio.”

“Nothing has been curtailed. Some of it was reduced slightly in scope,” Aschbacher said. “Nothing had to be deleted or taken out of the portfolio.”

However, some programs would have to be revamped because they received less money than projected. ESA provided few specifics, only releasing top-level funding for each of its major program areas. Most of them, like space transportation, exploration, and Earth observation, got between 80% and 90% of their request. A couple smaller ones, commercialization and navigation, ended up with slightly more than requested as member states oversubscribed their programs. (Science, as a mandatory program, got exactly what was requested; no less, no more.)

An example of a program that fell short of its projection was FutureEO, one of the programs Aschbacher had previously said was falling short. Simonetta Cheli, ESA’s director of Earth observation, said at the briefing that the program received about 80% of the request. She said ESA would spend the next few months examining the level of funding available and its strategic priorities to determine “what needs to go ahead, how fast and when.”

The same will happen in other areas, Aschbacher said, examining what can be done with the funding available.

ESA officials quickly wrapped up the briefing about the budget and seamlessly transitioned into the announcement of the new class of astronauts. Some of those selected might some day travel to the Moon as part of the Artemis program; if so, they will be able to thank, in part, some of the decisions made just before they took the stage.

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