December 03, 2012
Credit: Credit: ESA
Amy Svitak London and Naples, Italy
The European Union has always had an uneasy relationship with the European Space Agency (ESA).
A club of mostly EU-member states, ESA's 20 nations fund billions in a la carte development programs outside EU control, where the agency is free to uphold national industry workshare demands over competitive pricing, set policy and negotiate accords with other space powers, albeit without the international clout Brussels could bring to the table.
Since it was formally established in 1975, ESA's approach to R&D has proved effective at fostering technological innovation in Europe, helping sustain the aerospace and defense sector through economic ups and downs in the past three decades. Last month, the agency approved $13 billion in new spending over the coming years, a flat funding line compared with the last multiyear spending plan set in 2008, but significant given the drastic cuts some ESA member governments are seeing at home.
“ESA uses very flexible and efficient rules to manage 70% of the public civilian space activities of its member states, and it is an incredible success,” says Alain Dupas, an international space policy consultant based in Paris.
Only in the last 10 years has the EU assumed a stronger role in space, helping finance the European Geostationary Navigation Overlay Service (Egnos), taking on the Galileo satellite navigation system and initiating the Global Monitoring for Environment and Security (GMES) program, with technical management and contract oversight from ESA.
In 2009, Europe's constitutional treaty specifically gave the EU a shared role in setting space policy with ESA. But if the relationship is to continue, the EU expects the space agency to evolve.