PARIS — As European ministers meet to allocate funds for the European Space Agency’s programs for the next three years, agency leaders are optimistic about winning support for their priorities.
Ministers gathered here on 22 November for the start of a two-day meeting where ESA’s 22 full member states and several associated states will formally commit to funding programs ranging from exploration to space transport. . ESA Director General Josef Aschbacher has presented a program package with a total cost of 18.7 billion euros ($19.2 billion), an increase of about 25% over the previous ministerial in 2019.
In remarks at the meeting’s opening public session, Aschbacher made what was, in effect, a closing argument for that package, arguing that nations needed to invest more in space despite challenges such as inflation, an 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,” she said after outlining the components of the program she is asking members to fund.
In a briefing with journalists late on November 21, Aschbacher and Anna Rathsman, chair of the ESA Council, said they were going into the ministerial meeting feeling confident and better prepared than in previous meetings, when deals were finalized at the last minute.
“It looks good,” Rathsman said after a final meeting to finalize the resolutions for the ministerial. “There are many different points of view among the 22 member states, of course, when things are discussed, but I think they are very constructive. There is a will to really find a way forward.”
“I’ve been to a lot of ministerial conferences myself, and I’ve never seen them so fast, so early,” Aschabcher said.
However, smooth planning does not guarantee that funding will follow. The ministerial will count, largely behind closed doors, with debates and negotiations on which programs the countries will subscribe to and with what amounts. Key issues include a request for €750 million as an ESA contribution to the European Union’s secure connectivity constellation, newly named Infrastructure for Satellite Resilience, Interconnectivity and Security or IRIS².
ESA also needs €700 million to restructure the ExoMars mission after ESA cut ties with Russia earlier this year, though the agency is seeking only half of that at this ministerial meeting. That would allow ExoMars, previously planned to launch in September on a Russian rocket with a Russian landing pad, not to launch before 2028 with European replacements for those Russian elements.
While the ESA is seeking a significant funding increase across the board, that is not spread equally across all programs. ESA’s science programmes, for example, will get an increase just enough to cover inflation.
That fixed funding comes after a modest increase ESA won for science at the previous ministerial meeting in 2019 in Seville, Spain. “We all fought very hard in Seville to get this modest increase, but inflation is taking it away,” said Günther Hasinger, ESA’s director of science, at a briefing on 21 November. “The economic boundary conditions are such that we cannot afford much of an improvement.”
He said the lack of increased funding will not affect missions already in development, although a big one, an X-ray telescope called Athena, is undergoing restructuring and will likely be delayed due to development issues and rising costs. . Hasinger said that ESA will instead delay subsequent missions.
One reason for the disparity is that the science programs are “must” programs, and all ESA members contribute to them based on their gross domestic product. Waiver programs, on the other hand, give member states more flexibility as to which programs to support and how much.
“Everyone believes that the science program is extremely important. On the other hand, the number of optional programs that actually serve a good purpose is growing all the time,” Rathsman said.
Nicolas Walter, executive director of the European Science Foundation, raised concerns about the funding of science in remarks at the opening session of the ministerial council. “We are concerned that declining purchasing power will reduce the scope and scale of the program, including future mission-enabling technologies, and therefore encourage further investment as soon as possible,” he said, calling for that increase no later than. 2025 ministry.
In opening remarks to the ministerial meeting, several member states announced their intention to increase their contributions to ESA programmes, though generally with few details on the amount of the increase or how it would be distributed among those programmes.
French Economy Minister Bruno Le Maire, who was hosting the ministerial council meeting, told reporters ahead of the opening session that he was confident ESA would ensure his application was completed. “I am confident because I believe that this space cooperation and this space vision is absolutely key to the independence of Europe,” he said. “So I’m pretty sure space funding and European ambitions will be a priority for all member states.”