ESA leadership optimistic about funding as ministerial begins

PARIS – As European ministers gather to allocate funding for European Space Agency programs for the next three years, the agency’s leadership is hopeful of winning support for its priorities.

Ministers gathered here on November 22 for the start of a two-day meeting where ESA’s 22 full member states and several partner states will formally commit to funding programs ranging from research to space transportation. ESA Director General Josef Eschbacher has put forward a package of programs at a total cost of 18.7 billion euros ($19.2 billion), about 25% more than the previous ministerial budget in 2019.

In remarks at a public session earlier in the meeting, Ashbaker made a closing argument for that package, arguing that nations need to invest more in space despite challenges such as inflation, the energy crisis and the ongoing war in India. Ukraine.

“We must take bold decisions today. As I have 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 reporters late on November 21, ESA Council Chairs Eschbacher and Anna Rathsmann said that when the agreements came together at the last minute, they were feeling confident and better prepared than in past meetings.

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“It looks good,” Rathsman said after the final meeting to finalize the ministerial resolutions. “There are a lot of different views between the 22 member states, of course, when you discuss things, but I think it’s very constructive. Really wanting to 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,” Eschebcher said.

Flexible planning, however, does not guarantee that funding will follow. The cabinet will feature discussions and negotiations, mostly behind closed doors, on which programs countries will subscribe to and with what amounts. Among the key 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 restructure the ExoMars mission after ESA cut ties with Russia earlier this year, although the agency is seeking only half of that at this ministerial meeting. That would enable the ExoMars, previously planned to launch in September on a Russian rocket with a Russian landing platform, to be launched no earlier than 2028 with a European replacement for the Russian elements.

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While ESA seeks a significant funding increase overall, it is not distributed equally across programs. ESA’s science programs, for example, will receive enough increases to cover inflation.

That flat funding comes after a modest increase won by ESA for science in 2019 at a previous ministerial post in Seville, Spain. “We all fought very hard in Seville to get this modest increase, but inflation is taking it away,” ESA Science Director Gunther Hessinger said at a Nov. 21 briefing. “The economic frontier is such that we can’t afford a big boom.”

He said the lack of increased funding would not affect missions already in development, although one large X-ray telescope, called Athena, is undergoing restructuring and could be delayed due to development issues and cost overruns. Hassinger said the ESA would instead delay the next mission.

One reason for the disparity is that science programs are “mandatory” programs, with all ESA members contributing to them based on their gross domestic product. Alternative programs, on the other hand, give member states more flexibility about which programs to support and how much.

“Everyone believes that the science program is extremely important. On the other hand, the number of truly well-intentioned alternative programs continues to grow,” 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 cabinet. “We are concerned that the reduction in purchasing power will reduce the scope and scale of the program, including enabling technologies for future missions, and thus we encourage increased investment as soon as possible,” he said, the 2025 minister.

In the opening remarks of the Cabinet, some Member States announced their intention to increase their contributions to the ESA programmes, although generally with few details about the additional amount or how it would be allocated to those programmes.

French Economy Minister Bruno Le Maire, who served as host of the cabinet meeting, told reporters before the opening session that he was confident the ESA would secure its full request. “I’m confident because I think this space cooperation and this space vision is absolutely key to the freedom of Europe,” he said. “I am therefore very confident that space financing and the European ambition will be a priority for all member states.”

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