ESA reverses 2005 decline but ambition is elusive

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Space science was the clearest winner in the European Space Agency's member states' budget deliberations for 2008 to 2011, but high-profile plans for manned spacecraft shrank, with little or no dedicated funding.

After the two-day meeting of member states' space ministers on 25-26 November, and following months of negotiations before the conference, ESA director general Jean-Jacques Dordain secured €9.94 billion ($12.6 billion) for the organisation.

This compares with €8.25 billion in 2005, with space science seeing the largest increase at 3.5%. In 2005 it received 2.5%. The new monies will fund missions under the agency's 1994 20-year Horizon 2000 Plus programme and technology development for its next double-decade agenda, called Cosmic Vision, that starts in 2015.

Announcing the unanimous approval of the agency's four budget-related resolutions, Dordain said: "This council has been a complete success for ESA and the world."

Space science came under the second resolution, but the final distribution of funds among activity areas, including those under the other three resolutions, is unclear as detailed subscription information is not yet available.

Some elements of ESA's work only received funding that marginally reversed inflation-inflicted cuts. The agency's basic activities, which cover technical management and research, gained a 2.5% increase, while in 2005 it was zero.

The other three resolutions to be approved were: meeting the continent's needs - an oblique reference to European space policy, renewing the French Guiana spaceport cost-sharing agreement, and dealing with ESA reform.

"I was invited by the European Commission to see how we can better work on joint programmes. We have to reconcile the funding rules," Dordain says, referring to the agency's geographical return clause and the EC's primary concern with competition.

ESA's own proposals to its ministers reflected the European space policy agreed between the EC and ESA in May 2007. The two are already working together on the Kopernikus constellation for environmental monitoring and security and the Galileo satellite navigation system.

The influence of the European Union and domination of this joint space policy reflects the fact that of ESA's 18 member states, the latest of which, the Czech Republic, joined last month, only two are not EU nations: Norway and Switzerland. Dordain says EU member Romania has asked to join ESA.

The most important issue of ESA reform and one that could have a significant impact on the EU-ESA relationship is the decision-making process and how member states vote. An EC co-ordinated voting bloc, even under a qualified majority voting system, would easily determine ESA policy.

Such a bloc could be significant for the exploration element of ESA's work. At the 2001 ministerial meeting Aurora, a four-mission programme focused on Mars, was approved. By 2008 that programme had been reduced to two international missions, the drilling rig rover ExoMars and Mars Sample Return (MSR).

NASA has become a significant ExoMars and MSR partner and launch dates have been pushed back to the latter half of the next decade. While member states balked at paying the full €1.2 billion cost of ExoMars, Dordain succeeded in getting all the money for International Space Station operations, €1.37 billion.

There is outstanding ISS funding for the launch costs for two of the remaining four station resupply Automated Transfer Vehicles but that can be obtained at the 2011 ministerial, as those ATVs will be launched after that date.

For the ISS, the really significant ministerial will be the 2014 meeting, where ESA's member states will have to decide what funding, if any, they will commit to the space station up to 2020, the new notional end-of-life date for the orbital outpost.

But before then ESA could decide to fully evolve the ATV into a cargo return vehicle, because of the loss of NASA's Space Shuttle downmass capability when it is retired in 2010 and the ISS life extension.

"The advanced re-entry vehicle Phase A has been subscribed by France and Germany, among other ESA countries, including [co-operating state member] Canada for a total of eight supporters," says ESA's human spaceflight directorate's co-ordination office head, Piero Messina.

Another potential top-line budget figure for the future is ESA's involvement in the proposed manned Moon base. ESA is involved in the global exploration strategy that links the world's major space agencies' plans into a co-ordinated whole with the aim of a lunar outpost in the 2020s. The European agency has talked about an EADS Astrium Ariane 5-launched robotic lunar cargo lander.

"The Lunar lander activities have received strong support from Germany and we will need to see in the days to come how to go forward," says Messina.

He also says that no "specific activities" for the high-profile ESA-Russia joint Crew Space Transportation System (CSTS) were proposed at the ministerial. Instead "a more generic activity line for co-operation with Russia" was included in the new €62 million transport and human exploration budget for 2008-11.

In 2005, ��30 million was requested for the ESA-Russia Kliper project, although it received only €8 million. That led to the Apollo-like CSTS reference design.

For now space science's robotic exploration remains the favourite for all ESA member states, but that could change. Earlier this year, before the worldwide financial crisis, Dordain spoke of member states lining up to offer funding to see their astronauts go to the ISS and even the UK government, historically opposed to human spaceflight, has indicated a more positive policy.

But between now and 2011, even with a renewed world economy, ESA's greatest adventure could simply be trying to change its member states' voting arrangements.