Meeting with the Director General of the European Space Agency
Meeting with the Director General of the European Space Agency
© Pierre-François Mouriaux / Air & Cosmos

| Propos recueillis par Pierre-François Mouriaux | Source : Air&Cosmos 1247 mots

Meeting with the Director General of the European Space Agency

We interviewed Josef Aschbacher, Director General of the European Space Agency, at the 73rd International Astronautical Congress. This was an opportunity to take stock of the ministerial conference to be held on November 22 and 23 in Paris.

You have announced that you are aiming for a budget of more than €18 bn for the next Ministry. That's ambitious...

I wouldn't use the term ambitious, because the term ambition doesn't always sound positive. But yes, it's a bigger budget than the last Ministerial [which reached €14.4 bn in December 2016, Editor's note] : it represents an increase of about 25 % for three years. But put this increase in context, look at what Europe is doing compared to other countries and other regions. If I take the United States as an example, Nasa has a budget that is increasing by 7 to 8 percent per year - and I'm not talking about the Space Force, whose budget has increased much faster, as you know. So, in three years, that's (3 times 7) 21%, plus inflation: we're at 25%, just for the public sector in the United States, which is growing much slower than the private sector. In China, we don't know the numbers, but I'm sure the increase is much higher, probably 20 % for a year, compared to the current increase in launches, which is very impressive. So in that sense, a 25% increase in the budget in Europe is not at all exaggerated. It's a matter of going with the flow, and making sure that we don't lose out. Because that is my main motivation: to offer opportunities to young researchers, startups, experts, scientists or European engineers. Otherwise, they go away, to Silicon Valley or elsewhere. This is a necessary package that I think Europe needs to keep its talents here. And you know that space is a fast-growing sector, with a return on investment that can range from 1 to 5 (depending on the field). You also know that space provides strategic infrastructure that guarantees our standard of living, and with the war in Ukraine has shown that we need independence, not only in terms of access to space, but also in terms of technology. I think it is essential to maintain a certain level of expertise. Because if we don't, if we don't invest now, we will find ourselves out of the race tomorrow, as we did twenty years ago with information technologies - and today, the big space companies, the Gafams and the BATX, are in the United States and China. But not in Europe. In space, we have the expertise today. But if we don't maintain it, we will lose it, that's very clear. This is not ambitious, this is really what European countries and citizens must do to maintain a certain level of competitiveness and sovereignty on a global scale. Some have even told me that 25 % is not enough...


You seem confident...

We will see at the end of the ministerial conference in Paris, but for now I have received very good signals from some important member states. I don't want to go too far into the analysis of each of them, but I can tell you that some countries have sent a very clear message, especially in light of the war in Ukraine, because it is obvious that the technology we have developed in the context of ESA can also contribute to the security of people in general, and of France in particular. I believe that decision-makers have understood the issue : space is an important catalyst, both in large countries and in medium-sized or smaller countries...


If, by chance, the budget turns out to be less than expected, what are your priorities ?

All subjects are important, I do not rank. I would like to see every project fully subscribed and successful. Today, we keep this level, this is the package we negotiate. After that, there can always be last minute adjustments, that will happen. But I don't want to decrease or increase because I think this is a good level. I discussed this with the member states at the ESA Council Working Group on September 15 and we agreed that this was the level of commitment we were moving forward with.


This year, human spaceflight makes a strong entry in the budget...

In fact, human and robotic exploration, as it is called, is a bigger package than last time, because Europe is very far from what happens in the United States : today we spend 7 % of what Nasa spends on this activity. 7 %. I propose that we go to 10%. Obviously, this is a big increase for Europe, but it is still very limited compared to the global amount. Because it is not the number that counts, it is the content. I think that in Europe we have acquired great expertise in recent years in the operation of the International Space Station, and we have conducted some truly remarkable experiments on board the Station, for many applications - the pharmaceutical industry, materials science, biology, medicine, etc. The ISS is therefore a laboratory for the development of new technologies. So the ISS is an important research laboratory for us, with astronauts like Thomas Pesquet, and we certainly need a continuation of the ISS. But also, of course, we want to go beyond, to the Moon, with the large European logistic lander EL3 / Argonaute, with the Moonlight constellation for communications and navigation, with a participation in the Gateway, with the I-Hab and Esprit modules, with new ESM service modules to accompany NASA... NASA needs Europe to return to the Moon! And then there are the missions to Mars, which are very important because they prepare the next step, with the great Mars Sample Return and ExoMars missions (for the search for past life). Mars Sample Return, we had already committed to it with the Americans in the past. ExoMars is very critical, very political since the war in Ukraine and the end of the cooperation on this project with Russia. But we should not continue because Russia is withdrawing? I think it is a political discussion as much as a scientific one. After six years of finalizing the rover, it is still a cutting-edge mission, both scientifically and technically. All the scientists are eager to go and look for traces of life under the surface of Mars and, technically, it is a real challenge, which allows us to develop a landing technology that is very relevant for Europe. Finally, from a geopolitical point of view, I think it is very important to show that Europe can achieve this goal alone.


Europe could fully realize such a mission ?

The lander will ultimately be built by Europe. But we now need three critical elements for which we are asking for U.S. support. There is the launcher, then the radioisotope thermoelectric generator [RGT - Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator], and finally the braking motors for the lander. We have proposed to the Americans that they take care of these elements, and they have indicated that this would be possible. But, for the moment, we have not made anything official, since we do not yet have a commitment for financing. This will be done at the November ministerial meeting. Then, we will have to agree with NASA on the GTA, which requires the use of a qualified launcher for radioactive materials, but also a qualified launch site - which is not yet the case, neither for the Guiana Space Center, nor for European launchers. Eventually, we will prepare the CSG and Ariane 6 for this. It's just a matter of certification, but with a whole machinery that has to be voted on as you can imagine...

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