Posted on 04/12/2016 by Jan Woerner
ESA Council at ministerial level 2016: success, tinged with a bit of disappointment
For two days, as the ESA Council at ministerial level met to decide on the future of ESA and its programmes, Lucerne, Switzerland, became the capital of European space.
Ministers and delegations from all 22 ESA member states, associated state Slovenia, cooperating state Canada, representatives of the European Union (EU) and of those EU member states not members of ESA together with observers from a number of European organisations, all met in the Lucerne at the Culture and Convention Centre (KKL) to participate in what turned out to be lively discussions.
The first important step came when Council gave its backing to my strategy proposal “Space 4.0 for a United Space in Europe”, outlining how to move ESA forward while taking into account the shifts in paradigm occurring in the space sector and how to further develop the European dimension of space.
Although the strategic direction of the Agency is of the utmost importance, it immediately became clear that the real focus of the discussions would be the subscriptions, the amounts committed to the different programmes. In exhausting meetings conducted both day and night, solutions had to be found that would take into account national interests while also securing the substance of the various proposals. To do so required multiple rounds as member states held out for their respective interests while presenting their mutual demands. Tactical manoeuvres dominated the discussions while issues of national affordability were never far from the surface. Subscriptions were announced and then withdrawn again, making it almost impossible to identify a clear way forward. In the end, more than 10.3 billion euros were put on the table, constituting a major success overall.
However, there was one aspect which detracted from the otherwise positive mood: AIM (short for Asteroid Impact Mission) failed to get the financial support it needed. AIM had been intended as a learning exercise that would form part of a joint NASA-ESA activity to evaluate the technical possibilities of changing the flight path of a tiny asteroid moon. It was an example of ESA at its absolute best: daring, innovative and ambitious all at once.
Although, in the beginning, very promising subscriptions were given, the withdrawal of the biggest single amount at the very last minute proved devastating to an important mission with great potential for worldwide visibility. Following on from Rosetta, AIM had the ability to inspire the public by investigating how to deal with an object hurtling towards the Earth. The overall mission costs were estimated to be just about 2.5% of the overall subscriptions; the direct needs were only 1%. Ultimately – and this I very much regret – the difficult discussions among member states and a focus on direct applications and short-term return led inevitably to a situation in which I had no choice but to announce the proposal’s cancellation. The door was slammed shut but as I am convinced of the necessity of such a project, I will try to find a way back in through a window again. It is simply too important.
Regardless of the specific issue with AIM and some regrettable instances of undersubscription, this Council meeting at ministerial level showed us two things:
- The special ESA model involving the direct definition of programmes and “geographical return” clearly remains attractive to member states
- There is still some more to be done before we can say we have truly achieved a United Space in Europe in terms of comprehensive understanding and behaviour.
In any case one can state that, in terms of the big picture, the Ministerial was a success and I would like to thank everyone who contributed to that. For me it was a special challenge to represent the ESA Executive in such an environment but, due to the excellent support I received from a great many individuals, in many respects my task was ultimately made very much easier.
I would also like to extend my sincere thanks to Switzerland and the Swiss Delegation for their great hospitality as well as their efforts in co-organising this important event with us, and to Spain for chairing the 2016 Council meeting at ministerial level and agreeing to be the host in 2019.