the ESA has never been richer, but we’ll have to assume

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The agency proudly shows its ambitions with a record budget, but will have to make great efforts to catch up.

The European Space Agency ministerial conference, which ended on Wednesday 23 November, was rich in important information. In addition to revealing the identity of its next batch of astronauts (see our article), the agency has also tackled the issue of its budget with a noteworthy announcement; Member States have approved an investment plan increasing the Agency’s budget to €16.9 billion — an increase of 17% — for a period of three years.

Originally, the institution hoped to raise a total of 18.5 billion. But Josef Aschbacher, general manager of the agency, refuses to interpret this as a failure. He even sees it as a great success in the current context. ” In a time of war, Covid and energy crisis, this is a huge success […] I am very impressed with this result “, he stated. The same story with Bruno LeMaire, who talks about ” great success “on a budget” above expectations “.

©ESA

Fuel for ESA’s major projects

With this money, ESA can finance the next major space exploration projects planned between now and 2025.

In the coming years, ESA should inaugurate Ariane 6, the new Arianespace heavy launcher, which should become the new leader in European aerospace in anticipation of the reusable Maïa launcher (see our article). It will also look back at ExoMars, a major Mars exploration project that was postponed after the expulsion of Russia against the background of the invasion of Ukraine (see our article).

In addition, this jackpot will also fuel other projects such as Vega-C, the new version of the small Italian launcher or the Argonaut lander. We can also mention the Space Rider program, which aims to design the first reusable European space transport system.

In total, the budget for these reconnaissance missions has increased by 16%. A significant increase that sends a very clear message: Europe still wants to play the leading role in returning humans to the moon, and is now giving itself the means to do so.

European leaders show their unity…

The other point that makes this announcement exciting is that it bears witness to a relative unity between the various contributors, especially the most important. ” It’s a solid budget that we wouldn’t have gotten on France, Germany and Italy hadn’t agreed “explains Josef Aschbacher, quoted by Le Figaro.

This is a crucial point because the future of European aerospace depends directly on the ability of these driving forces to work together. And it’s not always easy to agree; we saw this again recently at the Space Tech Expo Europe, where various players in this industry argued for sometimes contradictory approaches (see our article below).

Space: Europe is “fifteen years behind” the United States

…or almost

But this budget will not remove these bottlenecks. The most important of these relate directly to the positioning of ESA. Some institutions believe that the agency should focus on the “American style” model. The latter consists of delegating a large part of the development, production and operation to private actors. The apostles argue that this would free up institutional funds while boosting the growth of European aerospace industry.

On the other hand, some believe that the European ecosystem is not yet mature enough to make a full transition to this model. According to my supporters of this positioning, it would be wiser to favor institutional missions.

Ultimately, ESA seems to have it cut the pear in half. France, Germany and Italy, leaders in this industry in the Old Continent, have signed a joint agreement. He confirms that the agency will continue to prioritize institutional missions. But it will still allow itself to use small launchers developed by private companies. Should this be seen as a pragmatic decision? Or is it a newstrategic mistake” which will be expensive for Europe, such as the development of Ariane 6 (see our article)? The question remains open and we must be careful. But the ESA seems confident in its project, which should allow it to catch up with the industry’s frontrunners.

The ESA is the ostrich of manned flights

Because even if it is time for optimism, it is clear that Europe has come a long way. In addition to the United States, which dominates the discipline insanely, other very serious competitors are starting to emerge, starting with China, which has been progressing at an impressive rate for several years.

This advancement is all the more remarkable as it directly relates to the Holy Grail of aerospace, namely human spaceflight. And if we look at the new ESA budget, this activity is unfortunately conspicuous by its absence. At the moment there is not even a real project of this type around Ariane 6.

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The United States is several steps ahead of Europe when it comes to manned flights. And the gap has widened further with the rise of SpaceX. © SpaceX

However, it is a pharaonic project that will require years of development; it is extremely unlikely that Europe will be ready to launch its astronauts with its own hardware before the end of the decade. A very important gap, given the geopolitical importance of this activity. Because that means Europe is deprived of crucial autonomy in this strategic sector, both militarily and economically. So she will be forced to bond wire to the leg and depend on the industry’s major powers, who continue to encroach on their side.

In the United States, we’ve been sending people into space for a long time. And this dynamic has further accelerated with the ongoing privatization of the sector, especially thanks to the blows from SpaceX. China, for its part, has its Shenzhou capsule. In particular, she used it to send taikonauts aboard her brand new space station (see our article). The Russians, for their part, can always count on this good old Soyuz, which the Europeans are now deprived of after the diplomatic separation between the ESA and Roscosmos against the background of the war in Ukraine. Even theIndia is in the process of developing its own inhabited capsules and plans to start using them in 2023.

A very tight corner that will have to be well negotiated

So if we can be happy with this record budget, we should also be careful with this enthusiasm. On the one hand, this is very good news for ESA’s scientific influence; it will be able to strengthen its contribution to highly prestigious programs. On the other hand, this is not necessarily reassuring in relation to the European space influence. A problem very well summed up by Philippe Baptiste, CEO of CNES, quoted by Challenges.

“Can we imagine a space Europe without this opportunity for our astronauts to access manned flight capabilities? he wondered before an audience of deputies and senators on Nov. 3. “ It is a matter of European influence. All the technical capabilities you have in Europe. It’s a matter of political will “, he hammered. To survive on the international scene, the key players in the sector will absolutely have to convince the political decision-makers to bet on manned flights. Because otherwise, Europe seems doomed to play second fiddle in space, and it could end up doing so in a matter of decades…

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