ESA leadership optimistic about funding as ministerial begins

PARIS — As European ministers come together to allocate funding for the European Space Agency’s programs over the next three years, the agency’s leadership is optimistic that its priorities will win support.

Ministers gather here on 22 November to kick off a two-day meeting in which ESA’s 22 full members and several associate members will formally commit to funding programs ranging from exploration to space transport. ESA Director-General Josef Aschbacher has presented a package with a total cost of 18.7 billion euros ($19.2 billion), an increase of around 25 percent from the previous ministerial in 2019.

In comments at the opening of the conference’s open session, Aschbach offered what was effectively the package’s epilogue, arguing that countries need to invest more in space despite challenges such as inflation, energy crises and ongoing wars Ukraine.

“We must make bold decisions today. As I have said before, we must invest in the future because we are in crisis,” he said after outlining the elements of a plan he was asking members to fund.

Briefing reporters later on Nov. 21, Aschbacher and ESA committee chair Anna Rathsman said they were more confident and better prepared for the ministerial meeting than past meetings where last-minute agreements were reached.

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“It looks good,” Lassmann said after the final meeting to finalize the resolution for the ministerial meeting. “Of course when you discuss things there’s a lot of different views between the 22 member states, but I think they’re very constructive. People are willing to really find a way forward.”

“I’ve been to many ministerial meetings myself, and I’ve never seen it go so fast, so early,” Aschabcher said.

However, smooth planning is no guarantee that money will follow. The ministerial meeting is mostly closed-door debate and negotiations over which plans countries will sign up to and how much money to provide. One of the key issues is the request for €750 million as ESA’s contribution to the EU’s Secure Connectivity Constellation, recently named Resilience, Interconnection and Security Infrastructure of Satellites or IRIS².

ESA needs another 700 million euros to restructure the ExoMars mission after it severed ties with Russia earlier this year, although the agency is seeking only half of that at this ministerial. This would allow the launch of ExoMars, previously planned for September on a Russian rocket with a Russian landing platform, to launch no earlier than 2028 and replace these Russian elements with European ones.

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While ESA is seeking to increase funding significantly overall, it does not distribute funds equally across all programs. For example, the ESA’s science program will receive growth just enough to offset inflation.

The funding was flat after the European Space Agency won modest increases for science at its last ministerial meeting in Seville, Spain, in 2019. “We all worked very hard in Seville for this modest increase, but inflation is taking it away,” ESA science director Günther Hasinger said during a Nov. 21 briefing. “Economic boundary conditions make it impossible for us to afford large increases.”

He said the absence of increased funding would not affect missions already in development, although a large X-ray telescope called Athena is being restructured and may be delayed due to development issues and rising costs. Instead, ESA will delay future missions, Hassinger said.

One of the reasons for this difference is that science programs are “mandatory” programs to which all ESA members contribute according to their gross domestic product. Optional schemes, on the other hand, give member states more flexibility in which schemes to support and how much.

“Everyone agrees that science programs are very important. On the other hand, the number of optional programs that really have a good purpose has been growing,” Rathsman said.

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

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

French Economy Minister Bruno Le Maire, who is hosting the ministerial council meeting, told reporters ahead of the opening ceremony that he was confident ESA would meet all of its demands. “I’m confident because I think this cooperation in space and this vision for space is absolutely crucial for European independence,” he said. “So I am very confident that space financing and European ambitions will be a priority for all member states.”

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