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Editorial | The Art of Compromise

Representatives at the ESA Ministerial in Naples, Italy Nov. 20-21, 2012. Credit: DLR photo by Thilo Kranz

Representatives of European Space Agency (ESA) governments made the best of a difficult situation during their Nov. 20-21 summit in Naples, Italy, most notably by defusing — at least for now — a clash between ESA’s two biggest contributors over launch vehicle investment strategy.

In yet another textbook example of ESA’s ability to accommodate the often disparate agendas of key members, the ministers agreed to fund Germany’s proposal to upgrade the Ariane 5 rocket while keeping alive France’s vision for a next-generation successor. France wanted to skip the Ariane 5 Midlife Extension (ME) upgrade, slated to debut in about five years, and proceed directly to the Ariane 6, a modular rocket designed to launch single telecom satellites that also would replace the Europeanized version of the Russian-built Soyuz.

With the two sides dug in on the eve of the meeting that would set ESA spending priorities for the next several years, the ministers crafted a compromise acceptable to both. Germany got most of what it wanted — the ministers also agreed to fund Germany’s proposed propulsion module for NASA’s Orion deep-space crew capsule — but France appears to have been mollified by a commitment to fund Ariane 6 design studies and to revisit the matter in 2014. ESA will invest a considerable sum, meanwhile, to ensure that the Ariane 5 ME’s Vinci restartable upper stage can also be used on the Ariane 6.

Jean-Yves Le Gall, chief executive of the French-led Arianespace consortium that markets and operates Europe’s launchers, said he was “delighted” with the outcome of the meeting and expressed confidence that ESA will fully commit to the Ariane 6 in 2014. That remains to be seen, of course, but ESA can at least move forward having successfully navigated the impasse.

The meeting yielded a mixed bag for ESA’s role in the international space station. Germany pushed hard for the Orion propulsion module, which NASA had encouraged ESA to build as a way to fulfill its financial obligations to station following closeout of the Automated Transfer Vehicle cargo delivery program. The move effectively internationalizes a major space transportation program that began as part of a U.S. lunar exploration initiative that encountered criticism for its lack of a prominent role for non-U.S. partners. It is not clear how Orion, intended primarily to send astronauts to destinations beyond low Earth orbit, fits into the space station program, but there is a growing sense that space exploration by necessity is an international endeavor.

At the same time, however, ESA will have to scale back its planned investment in other station-related activities, likely including research aboard its flagship Columbus laboratory, after Italy reduced its contribution to the program. That decision, which Italian officials said was taken to better align the country’s investment with its industrial work share on station, will further erode what should be the space station’s primary function: hosting world-class scientific and industrial research.

ESA’s science and Earth-observation programs, meanwhile, unfortunately will have to make due with flat budgets — meaning declining spending power because of inflation — in the next several years, reflecting the still-shaky economies of several agency members. Unlike its rocket and human spaceflight programs, which are driven by voluntary investments, ESA’s science activities are funded via mandatory contributions from all member states based on the size of their economies. The good news is that there will be a nearly 6 percent science funding boost for 2013 thanks to the addition of two new ESA members — Poland and Romania.

Inevitably, some proposed projects didn’t make the cut at the ministerial meeting, among them Germany’s proposed lunar lander, a weather satellite mission with China and a demonstration of an advanced automatic identification system (AIS) for maritime surveillance. AIS systems relay important information to coastal authorities about ships traversing the oceans, including destination, registry and cargo.

At least two companies, Com Dev subsidiary exactEarth of Canada and Orbcomm of the United States, are investing in commercial AIS systems; ESA had emphasized that its project would deliver a more advanced capability and thus avoid competing with these ventures. In shelving plans for the advanced system, however, the ESA ministers agreed to pursue a more pedestrian AIS system. The specific capabilities and other details of the watered-down system are not yet clear, but ESA must tread carefully: Pursuing a system similar to what exactEarth and Orbcomm are planning not only could undermine these companies, it would squander scarce resources that otherwise could go toward cutting-edge science and technology activities that governments are best equipped to undertake.

On balance, though, the ESA ministerial meeting should be regarded as a major success — the member states pulled together what appears to be a cohesive plan under challenging circumstances. Any number of government organizations — and not just multinational ones — could learn a lot from this example.

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