ESA ministerial meeting results in record budget

On November 27 and 28, the ESA (European Space Agency) council meeting at ministerial level (Space19+) took place in Seville, Spain. Now that one week has past, let us take a view back at the meeting, its results and initial reactions expressed within Europe.

Space19+

The ministerial council is the highest political decision-making body setting the content and financial framework for ESA’s space programs. In this function, it meets every two to three years. Last meeting took place in Lucerne (Switzerland) three years ago, in 2016. This year, the Spanish city of Seville was chosen as its venue. Due to many of the space sector expecting highly important decisions for Europe’s future in space, this year’s conference has been eagerly awaited. Just one week before, many entrepreneurs of the European space industry had met in Bremen for Space Tech Expo, right under the shadow of the upcoming ministerial meeting. There, the many uncertainties of space industry regarding the future financial framework were clearly noticeable, and all eyes were already focused on the upcoming meeting in Seville.

Bringing together ministers of ESA’s twenty-two member states as well as from Canada and observers of the European Union, the ministerial meeting was held from November 27 to 28. During the run-up to Space19+, ESA drove a different tactic this time than it had before by not requesting a higher amount, which should provide some buffer for negotiation, but following the decision to talk to the member states on a very concrete and frank basis. In the end, one will have to draw the conclusion that this worked well.

In fact, ESA was able to claim a record budget of almost fourteen and a half billion euros for a period of five years, and thus more than ever before. This result should certainly be a relief to director general Johann-Dietrich “Jan” Wörner who had come under some pressure lately. More than two thirds of the overall budget are provided by the four big nations of the European space sector. While Italy raised an amount of two and a half billion euros, France will provide almost two point seventy billion euros. The former biggest space budget provider has but now been overtaken by Germany, which put in promise almost three and a half billion euros for five years and therefore, will provide almost twenty-three percent of ESA’s future budget.

Interesting in this context is a look at the United Kingdom of Great Britain’s role. As the “Brexit” decision is still pending, the country had announced already before the conference’s beginning to be willing to spend more money on ESA programs, and it kept its word. It assured more than one and a half billion euros and reinforced that the possible exit from the European Union will not affect its participation in ESA and its programs. The United Kingdom of Great Britain thereby set a sign that outer space remains an important matter to it, and that it wants to go this way together with the member states of the European Space Agency.

The budget will be spread over a broad variety of programs, ranging from Earth observation to space safety matters. All four pillars of ESA will be supported: science and exploration, safety and security, applications, enabling and support. It shows a significant increase of budget for mandatory programs which form the back bones of the European Space Agency. By agreeing on an additional budget for five years, ESA member states intend to guarantee continued existence of ESA in case a new ministerial meeting in 2022 would not take place.

In general, the outcome for most programs turned out as hoped for. But in detail, some deviations are obvious. For instance, Earth observation programs scored well resulting in a significant oversubscription, while space safety programs were only granted an amount much lower than requested, and the target of six hundred million euros was clearly missed. This fact might seem disappointing, especially when considering that ESA director general Jan Wörner had called for attention to space safety and debris removal only days before the ministerial meeting. Nonetheless, it is still some success that ESA was able to raise a decent amount for space safety programs against the background of Lucerne 2016, where space safety was not financially supported at all although being an item on the agenda. Accordingly, Jan Wörner drew a differentiated conclusion stating that with this budget, the European Space Agency would be able to do what they wanted to, but that some actions planned in terms of space safety would experience some delay.

Looking at Germany and its budget in the space sector. Already being a leader in terms of Earth observation, it sounds logically that it kept its leading position within the Copernicus program by investing around five hundred and twenty million euros (equalling a share of around thirty percent). Similarly, Italy kept its leading role in the Space Rider program by covering seventy-five percent. Within the field of Earth observation, a major amount will go to the Copernicus program almost two billion euros) to ensure international competitiveness. Regarding space exploration, the European Space Agency is looking forward to continuing participation in the International Space Station (ISS) as well as to activities on the Moon and on Mars. The budget planned for space transportation shall serve the intent of making the launch vehicles Ariane 6 and Vega C more competitive, as Arianespace has received pressure from SpaceX by pushing launch prices downward. Investments in launch vehicles and the Guiana Space Centre (CSG) shall allow Europe to maintain independent access to outer space.

Concluding remarks on ESA ministerial meeting

The results from the ESA ministerial meeting have so far mainly received (very) positive responses. Especially ESA itself claimed the outcome to be a big success. Therefore, it was Jan Wörner who opened the press conference on November 28 with the words “Yes, you have a happy DG in front of you”. He further showed surprise due to his high expectations having been exceeded.

Positive feedback also shows in the media of the member states. In conformity with ESA, the French space agency CNES (Centre national d’études spatiales) described the results as a “huge success”. Similar voices appear in Germany. The German government showed satisfied and the F.A.Z. (Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung) titled that Europe would finally take outer space seriously. Besides sounding a little drastic in the judgement of Europe’s former interest in outer space, this statement indeed contains some true aspects. The member states decided to spend significantly more than before to push the space sector further and keep the pace of other big space nations in order to enable Europe maintaining its leadership role. Insofar, the European governments seem to have realised that ambitious progresses and competitiveness will only be achieved when a solid financial security is guaranteed. Maybe it was the fear of being left behind or maybe the will to explore. However, Europe has showed trust in ESA and the space industry, and wants to play a (significant) role within the future of outer space activities.