ESA leadership is optimistic about funding as the ministry 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 supporting its priorities.

Ministers gathered here on November 22 for the start of a two-day meeting in which ESA’s 22 full member states and several associate states will formally commit to funding programs ranging from research to space transport. ESA Director General Josef Aschbacher has allocated a package of programs with a total cost of 18.7 billion euros. ($19.2 billion), which is about 25% more than the previous ministry in 2019.

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

“Today we have to make bold decisions. 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.

At a press briefing at the end of November 21, Aschbacher and Anna Ratsmann, the chair of the ESA Council, said they were going to the ministry feeling confident and better prepared than in past meetings when agreements were reached at the last minute.

“It looks good,” Ratsman said after the latest meeting to finalize resolutions for ministers. “The 22 member states certainly have a lot of different views 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 and so early,” Ashabher said.

Smooth planning, however, does not guarantee that funding will follow. At the ministry, mostly behind closed doors, there will be debates and negotiations about which programs and for which amounts the countries will subscribe. Key issues include a request for €750 million as ESA’s contribution to the European Union’s Secure Communications Constellation, recently named Satellite Infrastructure for Resilience, Connectivity and Security or IRIS².

ESA is also seeking €700 million 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.

Although ESA is committed to a significant increase in funding overall, it is not distributed equally across all programs. ESA’s science programs, for example, will receive an increase only enough to cover inflation.

This equal funding follows a modest increase received by ESA for science at the previous ministerial in 2019 in Seville, Spain. “We all fought very hard in Seville to get this modest increase, but inflation is taking it away,” Günter Hassinger, ESA’s science director, told a Nov. 21 briefing. “The marginal economic conditions are such that we can’t afford a big lift.”

He said the lack of increased funding would not affect missions already under development, although one large one, an X-ray telescope called Athena, is undergoing restructuring and is likely to be delayed due to development problems and rising costs. Hassinger said the ESA will instead delay future missions.

One reason for the disagreement is that science programs are “mandatory” programs and all ESA members contribute to them based on their gross domestic product. Optional programs, on the other hand, give member states more flexibility in choosing which programs to support and in what numbers.

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

Nicolas Walter, executive director of the European Science Foundation, raised concerns about science funding in his speech at the opening of the Council of Ministers meeting. “We are concerned that reduced purchasing power will reduce the scope and scale of the program, including enabling technologies for future missions, and therefore we are calling for increased investment as soon as possible,” he said, calling for an increase no later than 2025 ministerial.

In their opening remarks at the ministerial meeting, several member states announced their intention to increase their contributions to ESA programs, although usually with few details on the amount of the increase or how it would be distributed among the programs.

French Economy Minister Bruno Le Maire, who hosted the cabinet meeting, told reporters before the meeting that he was confident ESA would comply with the full request. “I am confident because I believe that this space cooperation and this space vision is absolutely key to the independence of Europe,” he said. “That’s why I’m absolutely sure that space funding and European ambitions will be a priority for all member states.” ESA leadership is optimistic about funding as the ministry begins

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