The European Space Agency will vote on Wednesday on whether to spend billions more to keep up with the growing competition in space, as well as unveil its much-anticipated new crop of astronauts.
ESA’s 22 member states, whose ministers responsible for space missions have been meeting in Paris since Tuesday, will decide whether to grant the agency’s request for a record 18.7 billion euros for new programs over the next three years.
The figure is more than 25 percent higher than the €14.5 billion agreed at the last ESA Ministerial Council in 2019.
ESA Director General Josef Aschbacher told AFP that Europe risks “falling out of the race” in space if the budget is not increased.
Europe faces an increasingly tight market in space, with competition coming not only from the long-dominant US but also from rising powers such as China and private companies such as billionaire Elon Musk’s SpaceX.
But the call for countries to open their purse strings comes as Europe battles high inflation and an energy crisis.
France called for a united Europe in space on Tuesday.
“At the end of these discussions, there must be a single Europe, a common European space policy and unfailing unity in the face of Chinese ambitions and American ambitions,” French Economy Minister Bruno Le Maire said at the meeting.
“If we want to be independent, we have to put money on the table.”
Opening the council, Aschbacher emphasized that nations would reap enormous economic benefit from their investments.
Each country can choose how much it contributes to the budget, which includes three billion euros for climate change monitoring, 3.3 billion for the Ariane 6 rocket launch system and three billion for robotic exploration missions, among other projects.
Rocket Launcher Reinforcement
Some of the most difficult negotiations have been over rocket launchers, which are crucial for Europe to be able to launch missions into space without outside help.
ESA has struggled to get off the ground since Russia withdrew its Soyuz rockets earlier this year in response to European sanctions against Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine.
The job has been made more difficult by delays to the next-generation Ariane 6, which was supposed to have its maiden flight in 2020 but is now set to blast off late next year.
ESA has even had to use the Falcon 9 rockets of rival SpaceX to launch two upcoming science missions.
The subject of launch vehicles is regularly a source of “friction” between European countries, said Philippe Baptiste, head of France’s national center for space studies.
But talks got a boost on Tuesday when ESA’s biggest contributors France, Germany and Italy announced their support for Ariane 6 as well as the small Vega-C launcher.
The agreement indicated that the countries recognized their “interdependence” in space and paved the way for the launch vehicles to be paid for, said ESA’s director of space transport Daniel Neuenschwander.
Projects that are expected to be less controversial are projects that help monitor the effects of climate change back on Earth.
A survey released by ESA last week showed that nine out of ten European citizens “want to see space used even more to monitor and mitigate climate change,” Aschbacher said.
But trickier may be ESA’s €750m contribution to the European Union’s Iris satellite constellation project, which is planned to provide secure communications across the bloc from 2027.
The project is financed for the most part by the EU, which has other member states than ESA – above all Great Britain.
Once the budget is passed, ESA plans to unveil its latest crop of astronauts — the agency’s first new hires since 2009.
Between four and six people have been selected from over 22,500 applicants after a long selection process.
One of the new recruits may eventually head to the International Space Station.
Training for the new recruits will begin in April 2023 at the European Astronaut Center in Cologne, Germany, facility director Frank De Winne said.
In addition, ESA is also expected to announce one or more astronauts with a physical disability – a first in the history of space travel.
More than 250 people applied for the role after ESA conducted a “parastron feasibility study”.