ESA leadership optimistic about funding as ministerial 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 gaining support for its priorities.

The ministers gathered here on Nov. 22 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 transportation. ESA Director General Josef Aschbacher put forward a package of programs at a total cost of 18.7 billion euros ($19.2 billion), an increase of about 25% from the previous ministerial in 2019.

In comments at the opening, public session of the meeting, Aschbacher made what was, in fact, a closing argument for that package, arguing that countries need to invest more in space despite challenges such as of inflation, the energy crisis and the ongoing war in Ukraine.

“We must make a bold decision now. As I’ve said before, we must 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.

In a briefing with journalists late on November 21, Aschbacher and Anna Rathsman, chair of the ESA Council, said that they will go to the ministerial with confidence and better prepared than in previous meetings, when the agreements come together at the last minute.

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“It looks good,” Rathsman said after a final meeting to finalize the resolutions for the ministerial. “There are many different views in the 22 member states, of course, when you discuss things, but I think they are very constructive. There is a willingness to really find a way forward.”

“I’ve been to a lot of ministerial conferences myself, and I’ve never seen it go so fast, so early,” Aschabcher said.

However, proper planning does not guarantee that funding will follow. The ministerial will feature, largely behind closed doors, debates and negotiations about what programs countries will subscribe to and at what cost. Among the main issues is a request for 750 million euros as ESA’s contribution to the European Union’s secure connectivity constellation, recently named Infrastructure for Resilience, Interconnectivity and Security by Satellite or IRIS².

ESA also needs 700 million euros to reorganize the ExoMars mission after ESA cut ties with Russia earlier this year, although the agency is only seeking 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 platform, to launch no earlier than 2028 with European replacements for Russian elements.

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While ESA is looking for a significant increase in funding overall, that is not distributed equally across all programs. ESA’s scientific programs, for example, will get enough increases to cover inflation.

That flat funding comes after a modest increase won by ESA for science at the previous ministerial in 2019 in Seville, Spain. “We all fought hard in Seville to get this moderate increase, but inflation is taking it away,” said Günther Hasinger, ESA’s science director, at the November 21 briefing. “The economic boundary conditions are we can’t afford a big increase.”

He said the lack of a funding increase would not affect missions already in development, although one big one, an X-ray telescope called Athena, is undergoing restructuring and is likely to be delayed because on development issues and cost growth. Hasinger said ESA will instead delay future missions.

One reason for the difference is that the scientific programs are “mandatory” programs, where all ESA members contribute to them based on their total product. Optional programs, on the other hand, give member states more flexibility in what programs to support and how much.

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

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Nicolas Walter, chief executive of the European Science Foundation, raised concerns about science funding in remarks at the opening session of the ministerial council. “We are concerned that a decrease in purchasing power will reduce the scope and scale of the program, including enabling technologies for future missions, and so we encourage increased investment as soon as possible. ,” he said, calling for that increase no later than the 2025 ministerial.

In the opening ministerial remarks, several member states announced their intention to increase their contributions to the ESA programs, although there were generally few details about the amount of the increase or how it would be allocated to the programs that.

French economic minister Bruno Le Maire, who served as host of the ministerial council meeting, told reporters before the opening session that he was confident the ESA would meet its full demands. “I am confident because I think this space cooperation and this space vision is absolutely key for Europe’s freedom,” he said. “So I am very confident that funding space and Europe’s ambitions will be a priority for all member states.”

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