European Space Agency votes on record budget, appoints new astronauts

European Space Agency votes on record budget, appoints new astronauts


The European Space Agency will vote on Wednesday on whether to spend billions more to keep up with increasing competition in space and unveil its much-anticipated new generation of astronauts.

ESA’s 22 member states, whose ministers responsible for space affairs have been meeting in Paris since Tuesday, will decide whether to meet the agency’s request for a record €18.7 billion for new programs over the next three years.

The value is more than 25 percent above the 14.5 billion euros agreed at the last ESA Ministerial Council in 2019.

ESA Director General Josef Aschbacher told the AFP news agency that Europe runs the risk of “falling out of the race” in space if it doesn’t increase the budget.

Europe faces an increasingly crowded space market, with competition not only from the long-dominant United States, but also from rising powers like China and private companies like billionaire Elon Musk’s SpaceX.

But the plea for countries to open their wallets comes as Europe grapples with high inflation and an energy crisis.

On Tuesday, France called for a united Europe in space.

“At the end of these discussions there must be a unified Europe, a unified European space policy and infallible unity in the face of Chinese ambitions and American ambitions,” said France’s Economy Minister Bruno Le Maire 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 tremendous economic benefits from their investments.

Each country can choose how much to contribute to the budget, which includes €3 billion for climate change monitoring, €3.3 billion for the Ariane 6 rocket launcher system and €3 billion for robotic reconnaissance missions.

– Rocket Launcher Boost –

Some of the most difficult negotiations concerned rocket launchers, which are vital for Europe to be able to launch unaided missions into space.

ESA has been struggling to get off the ground since Russia withdrew its Soyuz rockets earlier this year in response to European sanctions over Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine.

Work has been complicated by delays with the next-generation Ariane 6, which was due to make its maiden flight in 2020 but will now take off late next year.

ESA has even had to use its rival SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rockets to launch two upcoming science missions.

The launch vehicle issue 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 and the small Vega-C launch vehicle.

The agreement shows that countries recognize their “interdependence” in space and paves the way for paying for the launchers, said ESA Director of Space Transport Daniel Neuenschwander.

Projects that help monitor the effects of climate change on Earth are likely to be less controversial.

A survey published by ESA last week showed that nine out of ten European citizens “would like to see even more use of space to monitor and mitigate climate change,” Aschbacher said.

More tricky, however, could be ESA’s €750 million contribution to the European Union’s Iris satellite constellation project, which should enable secure communications across the block from 2027.

The project is mainly funded by the EU, which has member states other than ESA – most notably the UK.

– New Astronauts –

Once the budget is approved, ESA plans to unveil its latest generation of astronauts – the agency’s first new recruits since 2009.

After a long selection process, between four and six people were selected from more than 22,500 applicants.

One of the new recruits could 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, said the facility’s director, Frank De Winne.

In addition, ESA is expected to announce one or more astronauts with a physical disability – a first in space history.

More than 250 people applied for the role after ESA conducted a “Parastronaut Feasibility Study”.

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