ESA Commits to ISS Extension, Cooperation on Gateway

ESA Commits to ISS Extension, Cooperation on Gateway

The ministers of the European Space Agency’s (ESA’s) 22 member countries have agreed on plans for ESA’s future investments in space science, exploration, applications, and security.  Among them are extending operations of the International Space Station (ISS) through 2030 — a goal expressed by NASA and some in Congress, but not yet established as policy — and cooperating with NASA on building a Gateway in lunar orbit.  All in all, they approved the largest ESA budget ever:  €14.4 billion (about $15.9 billion) over 5 years.

ESA does its budgeting in a rather unusual manner.  It has two types of programs: mandatory and optional.  As the words imply, all members must subscribe to (fund) the mandatory programs: space science and basic agency activities including operations of ESA’s launch site in French Guiana. They choose whether or not to support optional programs such as human spaceflight, launch vehicle development, space applications, technology development, and safety and security applications (such as space weather, space debris mitigation, and capabilities to deflect asteroids).  ESA Ministerial Council meetings typically take place every three years at which the budget for the next three years is approved.  However, ESA also is required to present a budget for two more years for the mandatory programs (a total of five years) to ensure they continue in case for some reason a Ministerial Council meeting is delayed.

The €14.4 billion just approved by the Ministerial Council at its “Space 19+” meeting represents €12.5 billion for three years (mandatory and optional) plus another €1.9 billion for the mandatory program for years 4 and 5.  In this ESA chart, for example, the notation for science is “1671 (+1152)” meaning €1671 million for the first three years and €1152 million for years 4 and 5.

That means about €4.2 billion per year for the next three years for mandatory and optional programs combined. A breakdown by program was not provided.

The largest ESA contributors are Germany, France, Italy and the United Kingdom (UK), in that order.  The UK will remain a member of ESA no matter what happens with its membership in the European Union (EU).  ESA and the EU are completely different entities, though many countries are members of both.

ESA Director General  (DG) Jan Woerner divides ESA’s activities into four “pillars”: science and exploration, safety and security, applications and enabling and support.  At a press conference following the Council meeting, Woerner declared himself a “happy DG” noting that all four pillars were supported — “there was not one pillar that was ignored.”

Some programs were over-subscribed so the total “is even more than I proposed,” he exclaimed.   He is particularly excited about the significant increase for mandatory programs because “science and basic activities are the backbone of ESA.”

One program that received more subscriptions than requested — €1.8 million versus €1.4 million, a 29 percent increase — is the earth observation Copernicus program.  Led by the EU, it is implemented by ESA.  ESA’s Director for Earth Observation, Josef Aschbacher, said the extra funds will permit a more robust system to study carbon dioxide and climate change variables.

Conversely, safety and security did not receive as much as requested: €541 million instead of €900 million.  Still, Woerner seemed satisfied since this is a new pillar for ESA.

For human exploration, ESA committed to spending  €300 million for Gateway plus €150 million for robotic lunar missions over the next three years.  That is in addition to ESA’s participation in the Orion program. ESA provides the Service Module for Orion.  In all, 25 percent of the €1.953 million for human exploration is for lunar activities according to David Parker, ESA’s Director for Exploration.

ESA will “continue our commitment to the International Space Station until 2030” and “European astronauts will fly to the Moon for the first time” according to an ESA press release.  The ISS partners so far are committed to operating the space station to 2024, but NASA is seeking to keep it in operation until at least 2030.  The NASA authorization bill pending in the Senate would set 2030 as U.S. policy.

For science, ESA remains committed to the ExoMars 2020 mission it is conducting in cooperation with Russia to land a rover on Mars.  The program has experienced parachute problems, but Parker said ESA is working with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) on that.  Other science programs getting support are the LISA mission to detect gravitational waves using space-based instruments, Athena to study black holes, and a Mars sample return mission in cooperation with NASA.

In space transportation, the Council approved development of Space Rider, a reusable, robotic spacecraft that will be launched on a Vega-C rocket and remain in orbit for up to two months before returning to Earth. ESA describes it as having the potential to allow microgravity experiments, technology demonstration and validation, or surveillance applications for disaster monitoring or satellite inspection.

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