CEO and Publisher Torsten Kriening and Chief Editor Dr. Emma Gatti had the chance to interview Dr. Josef Aschbacher, ESA’s Director General, the day after the end of Paris CM-22. Listen up the radio interview here, or read the edited version below.
Questions and answers have been edited for clarity.
Torsten: Dr. Aschbacher, congratulations. You brought home 16.9 billion Euros out of the 18.5 million proposed. Why the member states did not cover the entire budget?
Aschbacher: Let me say two words about the money, because this has been discussed before. Yes, it is true, I proposed 18.5 billion, but it is always the case in Ministerial Conferences that the subscriptions are below the proposed budget. This is normal and is not unusual for ESA ministerial conferences. And I think this is actually good, because if we would have more money than ideas than there’s something wrong. The second point, and this is a really important one, is that 16.9 billion is 17% more than last time, and achieving this target in times of crisis, with hyperinflation in many countries, with an energy crisis and with a war in front of our door is magnificent. And this is really something that I’m very happy about. I’m very grateful to the member states that they have committed fully to space, and I can assure you that every single country was making the best possible effort to subscribe as much as they can, given the circumstances. And I think it’s a huge success for space in Europe, but also for ESA as a mechanism to bring member states together and shape new programs. And now we have a number of new exciting programs which have been subscribed and are taking off. I mentioned ExoMars for example, or EL3 (now called Argonaut) as another example, the world observation project, but also within the future the New Earth Explorer, plus telecommunication, secure connectivity and so forth. There are really a number of programs and projects that have been initiated, and for this, I’m really, really grateful. And I think the result is just fantastic.
Emma: Thank you very much, Josef. Among the activities which got a larger boost, they were navigations, which saw an almost five times increase. Can you explain what is the strategic view behind this move and how this budget will be divided within the navigation project? Will it go only towards Galileo, or towards other missions as well?
A: Yes, navigation is one of the big winners in percentage terms of the ministerial compared to the previous ministerial. But you have also to put the numbers in context. In the last ministerial navigation was relatively small; there was only NAVISP with an envelope of 100 million. This time we had NAVISP and FutureNAV, which is a new program with two sub-elements, called Leo PNT and Genesis. Leo PNT in particular is a new strategic orientation, because it’s a low LEO constellation which will allow us to further increase the accuracy of the signal during navigation. This certainly will develop into a future major activity. But of course, we usually start small, and therefore the Leo PNT [in 2019] had a relatively small amount of money 100 million, as you know, which was well subscribed. So yes, in this perspective the strategic orientation is to make sure that we remain at the forefront of providing the most accurate navigation signal in the world as we do today with Galileo. And yes, these are strategic lines and FutureNAV will enable that.
T: Let’s have a look at the numbers from yesterday. The big contributors, France, Italy, Germany increased their budgets. On the other hand, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, Norway, Canada, all lowered their contribution. The gap is getting bigger. Do you feel a need to close this gap in the three years to come?
A: This is only partially true, if I may. If I take the very big countries (Germany, France and Italy), they had a good increase. Let me mention some numbers to put it in context: Italy had an increase of 36%, which is tremendous. This is really fantastic success and Italy has outperformed itself; Germany had a 7% increase, a bit less in percentage terms, and France has a 20% increase. But then, let me mention some medium-sized countries. Belgium had a 28% increase, Switzerland had a 35% increase compared to last time, and Spain had a 23% increase. Also the UK a 14% increase compared to the previous ministerial, Austria +25%, Netherlands 31%, Sweden 31%. So you see that some of these medium, smaller countries had significant increases. And then of course there is Estonia which had a 250% increase, but their amounts are relatively moderate. The only two exceptions were Romania, which had a very severe financial crisis also affecting the space domain, and Hungary, but Hungary had basically reconfirmed the same amount. And this for me is a tremendous signal that they are committed to space, they believe in space, they believe in ESA.
E: Another curiosity I had observing the number from yesterday was the matching of funding between EO and Human and Robotic Exploration. Exploration had a huge boost, what is the strategy behind it? And on the other hand, since EO and Human and Robotic exploration are now more or less on the same level, is this a signal that the interests of ESA are shifting towards the Moon, rather than the Earth?
A: No, because the human exploration program has a human component in it. We are starting really exciting projects, I mentioned before ExoMars [focused on Mars] and EL3 (Argonaut), which is a program focused on the Moon. But we also have our commitment towards NASA to make sure that our astronaut flights can continue to the ISS through the delivery of European service modules. Such commitment needs to be fulfilled and this, of course, requires a certain level of funding. So all together, yes, it is true, exploration has increased significantly, and I’m very happy about that. But Earth observation and climate change remain our top priorities and there are many programs that address climate change issues. It’s not only the Earth Observation Program by the way, because in TIA (Telecom and Integrated Applications), you have a large portion of our activities, especially the IRIS program, where you use telecom together with navigation to look at our planet. If I add up the budget allocation today in ESA for Earth Observations, Telecom and Navigation, it is 51% of his budget, which means that planet Earth is our focus. But yes, I also would like to develop the exploration part.
E: Thank you. I have another question. Yesterday you highlighted an important step towards the EU sovereignty. Germany, France and Italy signed a joint statement about launches. I was wondering if you could help me to understand a note in the statement, which mentioned the need of “starting a reflection on the conditions for the industrial and geographical distribution of work in exploitation”. I’m asking this because shortly after the announcement, Minister Bruno Le Maire restated that France has some doubts about the geo return policy. What does this mean? Do you intend to look into the “fair return” policy and change it?
A: what you are addressing is really for the exploitation of the launcher. So, this is not across all the programs, this concerns the launcher exploitation, and in particular the development and the elements that are required for Ariane 6 and Vega C flights in the future. And yes, here has been a discussion between the three countries because they are the main suppliers of components or technology for these launches (of course, we have also other participants just to be very, very correct for medium-sized countries Switzerland, Belgium for example, and others). There has been a discussion on what we call the “fair return” [policy]. Once the industrial chain is established and the contracts have been awarded, if there is a mismatch between subscriptions and contract awards we will adjust the payments retroactively. In other words, if a country pays 100 and the industry in that country only consumes 90, the 10 billion in excess will be credited or paid back to the country, and a country has to cover the costs that occur in that country. The readjustment will occur at the end of competitive process, which is different process from the subscription process, where we have subscriptions in advance and then we run the competition. This is a reflection of the three member states I should say. They asked us to reflect on this and see how this could work, to readjust the contributions once the contracts have been assigned. The idea is to smooth this process, enhance competition and reduce costs.
T: The next Ministerial in Berlin in 2025 will be a rough ride economically, geopolitically, and environmentally. Where do you see your personal challenges?
A: The preparation of the Ministerial 2025 starts today. We had a very successful event and I already had a reflection with my team to see what have we learned from this and how do we move forward and what are the changes in terms of approach and strategy that we might apply. In terms of big picture, it is clear that the ambition which I have kicked off will continue and I will certainly set very high targets for you Europe in space for 2025. Certainly, I would like to continue this path of growth for space in Europe, as we have seen it. We got 17% more as compared to last time, and that is a very nice significant increase, especially given the circumstances. And I would like to continue on this path, because I’m firmly convinced that Europe has the excellence and needs space in daily life. And we need to really play an active role in order to really shape and co-lead some of these activities. And you see this written very clearly in all the strategy documents which we publish, and all the statements which we make. So this will continue. Now, if you go one level further down, on which of the domains are being more developed and which are maybe less developed, I certainly would like to continue increasing all the domains, this is obvious. Climate change will remain our top priority, and we will focus the next year’s activities on tackling the problems on our planet Earth and there will be many activities that we will initiate and prepare for the next Ministerial. So this is always the number one priority. I will also work on human exploration, because I think this is something where we need to build up a stronger European presence. Let me remind everyone that the budget of European exploration is about 7% of NASA’s one. Of course, we will never reach the levels of NASA, this is obvious, but certainly I would like to have a strong European capability, also to be a strong partner internationally with NASA and other partners. This is something I really would like to build up. As you know, we are planning a space summit next year in Spain. It was announced yesterday, it will be in Seville in November 2023, [and it will be organized together with] the German co-president of ESA and the Spanish EU presidency. I really want to prepare this summit very well, and human and robotic exploration will be key topics for that summit.
T: I would like to hear something more concrete from you. What will we see in the next three years? What are the highlights you’ve envisioned for ESA?
A: First of all, we will have a number of launches with satellites that have been developed over the last 10 years or so. Secondly, next year will be quite exciting for space science: we have Euclid and Juice that are on the launch manifest; we have Sentinel-1C being launched in spring next year to replace Sentinel-1B which had an in-orbit failure. And then we will launch other Sentinels, in order to guarantee data from the Sentinel family. We also certainly will see the Artemis II flight, with astronauts on board, not the European one unfortunately, but with astronauts on board. And that of course will set the pace for the next Artemis, Artemis III, which will see astronauts on the Moon. And then Artemis IV and V, and so on, where European astronauts are already planned to be participating, especially Artemis IV and V, because they are also establishing and building up the Gateway with European contributions. II will in fact fly to Washington next week to discuss the results of the Ministerial with NASA and start a dialogue on what this means in terms of NASA-ESA cooperation for the years to come. And this is not only optimist, this is really the whole exploration package of Mars, Moon, the ISS, but also Earth Observations. Personally, this will be quite an important meeting for me. I will present these very successful results, and see how we move from there and what our next concrete steps will be.
T: Thank you very much for your time and we hope that you will have a well-deserved weekend and can get some rest.
E: Thank you very much. It was a pleasure.
A: Thank you, Good bye.