May 28, 2012
Credit: Credit: Arianespace/ESA
Amy Svitak/Bordeaux, France, and Berlin
When the European Space Agency's council of ministers meets this fall to hash out a new multiyear budget, one of the key challenges it will face is how best to maintain Europe's independent access to space.
With potentially billions of euros in development funding at stake over the coming decade, ESA ministers must weigh the merits of continuing work on an upgrade of Europe's current Ariane 5 launch vehicle against a French proposal to begin work on a successor to the heavy-lift rocket. The debate will be shaped largely by the cash-strapped circumstances of ESA member governments, most of which are demanding an end to periodic Ariane 5 price supports. In addition, council ministers representing the 19-nation agency will seek to maintain Europe's technological independence from other space powers, even as ESA embarks on a more competitive approach to launcher procurement that could upend three decades of industrial policy in an effort to lower costs.
For now, France and Germany—ESA's top two contributors—maintain opposing views on the issue, with Germany strongly endorsing continued work on an estimated €1.6 billion ($2 billion) upgrade to the Ariane 5, known as the Ariane 5 Midlife Evolution (Ariane 5 ME). France, which approved early design work on the ME during ESA's 2008 budget ministerial, is now pressing the case for a less capable but also less costly next-generation launcher tentatively dubbed the Ariane 6.
By the end of June a Franco-German working group is expected to produce a joint analysis of the pros and cons of different options and a number of ESA member states are evaluating architecture designs internally to bolster their respective positions ahead of the November ministerial.
While Franco-German consensus could be tested by political tension between French President Francois Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, for the most part space policy has not been a subject of political debate in France, which means the working group's output is unlikely to be influenced by the new French administration or upcoming parliamentary elections in June.
The launcher debate took an odd turn in April, however, when ESA Director General Jean-Jacques Dordain bucked 35 years of European acquisition policy—agency-specific rules that guarantee member states industry work-share in return for financial backing—and instead called for a competitive, requirements-based approach to buying Europe's next-generation launcher. By June the agency will select two industry proposals to kick off year-long design studies under the so-called New European Launch Services (NELS) program, with work expected to begin before July.
“Companies are always complaining that the lack of competitiveness is coming from the constraints imposed by ESA and its member states,” Dordain said on the sidelines of an International Space Station symposium held May 2-4 in Berlin. “I tell them, I am offering you one window of opportunity. You just answer as you want, with zero constraints of geographical return, zero constraints of anything.”