ESA leadership optimistic on funding at start of ministerial conference

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 garnering support for their priorities.

Ministers gathered here on November 22 to start a two-day meeting at which 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 has presented a program package with 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 meeting’s opening public session, Aschbacher made a closing argument for this package, arguing that despite challenges such as inflation, an energy crisis and the ongoing war, nations need to invest more in space in Ukraine.

“We have to make bold decisions today. As I said before, because we are in a crisis, we need to invest in the future,” he said after outlining the components of the program he is asking members to fund.

In a briefing with reporters late on November 21, Aschbacher and Anna Rathsman, Chair of the ESA Council, said they went into the Ministerial with confidence and better prepared than at previous meetings when last-minute agreements were reached.

“It’s looking good,” Rathsman said after a final meeting to finalize resolutions for the ministerial conference. “Of course there are many different views among the 22 member states 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 many ministerial conferences myself and have never seen it happen so quickly and so early,” said Aschabcher.

However, smooth planning does not guarantee that funding will follow. At the ministerial conference, debates and negotiations will take place largely behind closed doors as to which programs countries will subscribe to and for what amounts. Key issues include a request for €750 million as ESA’s contribution to the European Union’s secure connectivity constellation, recently dubbed Infrastructure for Resilience, Interconnectivity and Security by Satellite or IRIS².

ESA also needs €700 million to restructure the ExoMars mission after ESA severed ties with Russia earlier this year, although the agency is only targeting half of that at this ministerial meeting. That would allow ExoMars, originally slated to launch in September on a Russian rocket with a Russian landing pad, to launch no earlier than 2028 with European replacements for those Russian elements.

While ESA is aiming for a significant increase in funding overall, this is not being evenly distributed across all programs. ESA’s science programs, for example, are increased only enough to cover inflation.

This lump sum funding follows a modest top-up won for science by ESA at the previous ministerial meeting in Seville, Spain in 2019. “We all fought very hard in Seville to achieve this modest increase, but inflation is taking it away from us,” said Günther Hasinger, ESA’s Director of Science, at the November 21 briefing. “The general economic conditions are such that we cannot afford a major uplift.”

He said the lack of a funding boost will not affect missions already in development, although one large one, an X-ray telescope called Athena, is being restructured and likely delayed due to development problems and cost growth. Hasinger said ESA will postpone later missions instead.

One reason for the disparity is that science programs are “mandatory programs” to which all ESA members contribute based on their gross domestic product. Optional programs, on the other hand, give Member States more flexibility as to which programs they support and to what extent.

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

Nicolas Walter, Chair of the Board of the European Science Foundation, raised concerns about science funding in his speech at the opening session of the Council of Ministers. “We fear that the decreasing purchasing power will reduce the scale and scope of the program, including key technologies for future missions, and therefore we encourage higher investments as soon as possible,” he said, calling for this increase no later than Prime Minister 2025.

In opening speeches at the Ministerial, several Member States announced their intention to increase their contributions to the ESA programmes, albeit usually with little detail on the size of the increase or how it would be distributed across those programmes.

French Economy Minister Bruno Le Maire, who hosted the Ministerial Council meeting, told reporters ahead of the opening session that he was confident ESA would fully honor their request. “I’m confident because I think this space cooperation and this space vision is absolutely crucial for Europe’s independence,” he said. “So I’m pretty confident that space funding and European ambitions will be a priority for all member states.”

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