France unveiled a new space strategy last week that calls for gradual integration of the European Space Agency (ESA) into the European Union, among other ideas.
During a March 22 visit to Cannes, French Higher Education and Research Minister Laurent Wauquiez touted France's 16 percent rise in its civil space budget between 2007 and 2012 and a belief that for every euro invested in space, 20 are generated in the wider economy. He said civil and military space spending combined is €2 billion per year in France, where more than 12,000 people are employed in the space sector.
"Space is not a luxury that we can do without in a time of crisis," Wauquiez said in a speech that accompanied the release of the new space strategy. "On the contrary, it is an investment in the future."
France, which seeks a more unified approach to space in Europe, sees itself as a driver of integration for space. The 22-page document says folding ESA into the EU is something that "will only occur in stages" and that in the near term, the EU must be allowed to delegate to ESA "the oversight of EU space programs and the definition of ad hoc rules for the management of those programs."
France also supports a relaxation of ESA's geo-return rules, which guarantee a 90-percent return on investment in the form of work share to any ESA country that contributes financing to a specific program. At the same time, the document urges the EU to stop obsessively looking for competitive bids and allow occasional sole-source awards. Both recommendations tend to favor France, which boasts the largest and most comprehensive space industry in terms of available technologies in Europe.
On the launch sector, access to space continues to be of paramount importance to France, which finances 50 percent of the current Ariane 5. The French want to start work on a follow-on rocket, which they call the Ariane 6, and are debating the merits of such a development with Germany, one of ESA's largest contributors and a member state that would prefer to continue work on an Ariane 5 midlife evolution (Ariane 5 ME) before funding a next-generation launch vehicle development.
Since February the two sides have been hashing out a common position on the debate, ahead of ESA budget talks in November. But consensus has proved elusive.
In the meantime, ESA is preparing to issue a tender for design proposals for a next-generation launch vehicle next month. After months of polling its largest European customers for future launcher requirements -- SES, Eutelsat, Hispasat, European militaries -- ESA Director General Jean-Jacques Dordain says he wants the new vehicle's architecture and industrial team in hand by year's end.
In the meantime, the strategy document says France is working with ESA to prepare for the eventual decision with its own studies of Ariane 6 using roughly €250 million in French public bond money. The likelihood of the U.S. dollar remaining sharply lower than the euro in the coming years, coupled with the introduction of new competitors, notably the Falcon 9, Chinese Long March and India's new rockets, means the priority of the Ariane system is to reduce its break-even cost, the document asserts.
The new strategy also urges the EU to assimilate France's Guiana Space Center into the European Commission's critical infrastructure budget, an idea that French President Nicolas Sarkozy has raised in recent years. France currently finances about two-thirds of the Guiana facility, the remaining third being funded by other ESA member states. Sarkozy asserts that if space is a strategic asset for Europe, then the equatorial launch base on the northeastern coast of South America should benefit from EU financial support, though he has yet to explain exactly how this would work.
On satellite telecom, the document calls on the EU to make Galileo a 30-satellite constellation, as opposed to the 26 navigation and timing spacecraft currently on order. As originally planned, the constellation was to comprise 30 spacecraft plus several spares. The new strategy also pressures the EU to assure a dual-source for launch. Up to now the EC has only ordered Soyuz launches of two satellites to medium-Earth orbit at a time. Adding Ariane 5 to the mix would afford launches of four spacecraft, though someone would need to ante up €50 million to adapt the European rocket for Galileo.
On defense, the space strategy outlines four priorities for military space, including very high-res optical reconnaissance capabilities, secure satcom links, signals intelligence capabilities and missile detection.
France currently operates the Syracuse 3 system with secure satcom links and has already contracted for a next-gen Helios optical recon mission. Technology demos of sigint capabilities are also flying on the Elisa constellation launched in December last year, and France has talked about a follow-on operational system called Ceres, though it's not yet funded and no one else in Europe seems willing to share the costs of it.
France has also launched an experimental missile warning system called Spirale. Although it has yet to attract interest from European partners, Astrium Space Transportation CEO Alain Charmeau says his company is proposing the capability as an in-kind contribution to a wider NATO territorial missile defense system, a topic expected to come up at the NATO summit in Chicago in May.
"Spirale has given outstanding results, which now allow the French MoD to design what could be an operational satellite for early warning," he says. "They are already working on it and I am absolutely convinced that there will be a French program for early warning satellites."
It is worth noting that the policies outlined in the document are vague enough to survive France's upcoming presidential election in May, regardless of the result. Up to now, space has been the subject of wide consensus in France. Notably absent from the document is mention of the International Space Station and Europe's continued support for it, namely a discussion of what type of platform France would like to build as an in-kind contribution to ISS prime contractor NASA, including a possible robotic vehicle that could operate in low-Earth orbit performing a variety of tasks, including removal of dead satellites from orbit.
However, France still favors a long-term roadmap to Mars, including a sample return mission on the way to eventual manned exploration. For now, France is contributing a piece to NASA's Mars Science Laboratory rover currently headed for the red planet while debating with other ESA members the prospect of funding €1.2 billion for Europe's dual-pronged robotic ExoMars campaign to the red planet in 2016 and 2018.