November 19, 2012
Credit: Credit: DLR Concept
Amy Svitak Paris
In 2008, with Europe headed into recession, the European Space Agency approved a €10 billion ($13 billion) multiyear space spending program, saying that an economic downturn was no time to cut investment in research and technology development that could stimulate much-needed growth.
Four years later, with Europe further mired in financial turmoil, these same governments are meeting to decide a fresh set of spending for the agency's programs and operations in the coming years. But with many big contributors facing severe spending cuts at home, it is far from clear whether member states will have the same appetite for R&D investment. Some officials are suggesting the science program—the largest spending line at around €2.6 billion over five years—will not even be able to keep up with inflation.
“Flat cash would be in line with what our national budgets have received for science,” says David Williams, the head of the U.K. Space Agency and president of the European Space Agency (ESA) ruling council, the ministers of which will meet for two days in Naples this week to hash out the multiyear spending plan. Two of ESA's four largest contributors, France and Italy, have remained mum as to what their total investment will be. Germany, ESA's largest financial backer, has signaled a small increase over its 2008 level of nearly €2.7 billion.
In a surprise move, however, the British chancellor of the exchequer on Nov. 9 committed his nation to a 25% increase in ESA spending in 2013-17.
In terms of total contribution, the unprecedented funding boost still leaves the U.K. far below France, Germany and Italy, which are grappling with big-ticket items, such as paying for a next-generation launcher and continuing support for the International Space Station (ISS). Britain has no commitment to either of those, and so it could use the increase to nab larger pieces of small and mid-sized programs, including development of a new telecom satellite platform and the Metop Second-Generation meteorological satellite (EPS-SG).
Science is only one of a half-dozen spending lines up for debate. ESA ministers will haggle over Earth observation, telecommunications, navigation, exploration, launch vehicles and support for the ISS, the latter two being among the most contentious issues to resolve.
For the first time in 25 years, Europe is being asked to consider starting a new, multibillion-euro rocket development, one that may not provide the same kind of industrial participation as the current Ariane 5 ECA vehicle.