ESA Ministers Approve Participation in NASA's Orion, Other Elements of Future ESA Program

ESA Ministers Approve Participation in NASA's Orion, Other Elements of Future ESA Program

The European Space Agency’s (ESA’s) Ministerial Council approved ESA participation in NASA’s program to build the Orion spacecraft system to take astronauts beyond low Earth orbit. ESA will provide the service module for the Orion system as an in-kind contribution to offset its share of operating costs for the International Space Station (ISS) in 2017-2020.

ESA and NASA have a long history of cooperation in human spaceflight, from the Spacelab module that flew in the cargo bay of the space shuttle providing a shirt-sleeve environment for research to the Columbus module and the cupola on the ISS. They also have engaged in decades of cooperation on earth and space science programs. NASA’s decision earlier this year to withdraw from the ExoMars program, which envisioned close cooperation between the two on robotic Mars exploration, cast a chill on the relationship, but apparently not for long.  Russia has now replaced the United States as ESA’s ExoMars partner, another agreement formally reached this week.

ESA will build the service module for Orion based on technology and experience from its Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) program. ATV takes cargo to the ISS. ESA will provide the service module to NASA in exchange for ESA’s share of ISS operating costs for 2017-2020 and called the decision “strategically important for Europe,” noting it would put ESA in the “critical path of future human space exploration endeavours, together with NASA.”

That decision was one of many made in the past two days by the relevant ministers for each of ESA’s 20 member states. Collectively they agreed to provide 10 billion euros “for the years ahead.” ESA’s science programs are part of its mandatory activities to which each member state must contribute. They will be flat funded for 2013-2017, which should permit implementation of ESA’s Cosmic Vision 2015-2025 program. Among the science programs that will proceed are Gaia, LISA Pathfinder, BepiColombo, Solar Orbiter, Euclid and JUICE. A proposal for a lunar lander will not.

A contentious issue within the optional program — where each country decides whether or not to participate — is whether to build an improved version of the Ariane 5 launch vehicle, an Ariane 5 ME (for Mid-life Evolution), or design a new Ariane 6 that might better fit future market needs. The ministers punted on that issue, approving two years of funding for both and scheduling another ministerial meeting two years from now to further debate the topic. During a press conference today, a reporter pointed out to ESA Director General Jean-Jacques Dordain that Elon Musk, founder and CEO/CTO of SpaceX, had said in a recent interview that ESA could not compete with SpaceX’s Falcon rocket if it chose Ariane 5 ME over Ariane 6. Dordain jokingly asked whether that meant Musk wanted to contribute to Ariane 6, but on a serious note said that the design of Ariane 6 would respond to customer requirements — reliability, lower cost, and payload mass to orbit.

ESA is a European space agency whose ties to the European Union are increasingly close. Eighteen of ESA’s 20 members also are members of the EU and two-thirds of the EU members belong to ESA, Dordain said. ESA and the EU are working together on developing a navigation satellite system, Galileo, and the Global Monitoring for Environment and Security (GMES) system using Sentinel satellites. The ESA ministers approved an extension to ESA’s navigation satellite effort for 2013-2015, which includes Galileo and another system, EGNOS, as well as to the GMES Space Component program for 2013-2014.  Member states started subscribing for the next time period for GMES, 2015-2020, too.  Other space applications programs in earth observation and meteorology were continued.

Specifics on funding for any of these programs were not released today, only the top line figure of 10 billion Euros. Dordain said during the press conference this level of commitment was a “big success” considering the economic conditions in Europe and is a recognition of the role that space activities play in competitiveness and economic growth.


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