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ESA funding higher than expected

The European Space Agency's members have committed more money than anticipated—a total of €5.9 billion—to launchers and space exploration programmes.

The research and industry ministers of the European Space Agency’s 20 member states met in Luxembourg on 2 December to debate future funding and projects for the agency. Topics under discussion included the development of EU-funded rockets and the budget for several ongoing missions for the coming three years, especially the International Space Station.

According to ESA’s director general Jean-Jacques Dordain, member states have committed about €800 million more than what was expected before the meeting. “We have never found ourselves in a more comfortable position,” Dordain said at a press conference after the ministerial conference.

David Southwood, a former scientific director of ESA, says that Dordain was successful in convincing member states that they would get good value for money, thus pushing them to raise their contributions to ESA. “The outcomes of the meeting show that ESA is probably in a healthier state that what we thought, and taking into account the economic uncertainties, that is quite remarkable,” he says.

The meeting was preceded by months of intense negotiations, especially between France and Germany, on the future of the ISS and ESA’s launchers programme. The main topic on the agenda was the development of the Ariane 6 rocket, which is meant to be capable of carrying heavier loads and will compete with low-cost models developed by the US private contractors SpaceX and Orbital Sciences, with substantial support from NASA.

France, the main champion of its home-built product Ariane 6, spent years trying to convince Germany of the need to develop a new launcher model instead of upgrading the existing Ariane 5, a cheaper plan according to Germany. 

At the meeting, ministers reached common ground on the design and funding of this rocket and on the upgrade of Vega-C, a much smaller model. Under the agreement, ESA’s member states have committed to pay almost €4bn for the rockets programme over the next 10 years. Germany will pay for 22 per cent of the total—€1.8bn. 

The shift in Germany’s stance is said to have happened in exchange of the support of France and Italy for continued funding for the International Space Station, in which Germany leads Europe’s participation. ESA’s members will contribute with €800m to the ISS in the next 5 years. ESA will meet again in 2016 to decide whether or not it will continue taking part in ISS-based research between 2020 and 2024. 

The ExoMars project, a two-stages initiative to look for life signatures on Mars, will receive the €200 million needed to be completed in time. The project consists on two missions: an orbital and a lander to be sent in 2016, and a rover scheduled for 2018. The extra cash agreed today was crucial in order to meet the 2018 deadline and avoid additional costs, the meeting participants said.

Although Germany is said to have made some concessions on this project, its contribution to ExoMars is still disproportionate low in comparison with the rest of ESA’s members, Southwood said.

After years spent reducing its contributions to the space agency following the financial crisis, Spain announced that it would allocate €345m for new optional programmes, in addition to its annual contribution of €152m per year for the period 2014-2020. This move will satisfy the country’s industry, which in previous months complained about the low number of contracts Spanish companies could sign with ESA. 

The next ministerial conference, scheduled for 2016 in Lucerne, Switzerland, will not be chaired by Dordain, whose mandate will finish in June 2015 after 11 years and three consecutive terms.