The European Space Agency will name its new group of astronauts, one of whom could head to the ISS – Copyright AFP ADEK BERRY
The European Space Agency will vote on Wednesday whether to spend billions of euros more to keep up with the growing competition in space, as well as introduce its long-awaited new generation of astronauts.
ESA’s 22 member states, whose space ministers have been meeting in Paris since Tuesday, will decide to honor the agency’s request for a record 18.7 billion euros for new programs over the next three years.
The figure is more than 25 percent higher than the 14.5 billion euros agreed at the last ESA ministerial council in 2019.
ESA director general Josef Aschbacher told AFP that Europe risks “being left out of the race” in space if it does not increase the budget.
Europe is facing an increasingly saturated space market, with competition coming not just from the United States, which it has long dominated, but also from rising powers like China and private companies like billionaire Elon Musk’s SpaceX.
However, the request for countries to open their accounts comes as Europe battles high inflation and an energy crisis.
France called Tuesday for a united Europe in space.
“At the end of these discussions, there must be a single Europe, a single European space policy and an unwavering unity in the face of Chinese and American ambitions,” French Economy Minister Bruno Le Maire told the meeting.
“If we want to be independent, we have to put money on the table.”
In opening the council, Aschbacher emphasized that nations would reap enormous economic benefit from their investments.
Each country can choose how much to contribute to the budget, which includes 3 billion euros for climate change monitoring, 3.3 billion for the Ariane 6 rocket launch system and 3 billion for robotic exploration missions, among other projects.
– Rocket Launcher Boost –
Some of the most difficult negotiations have been on rocket launchers, which are crucial if Europe is to launch missions into space without outside help.
ESA has had trouble getting off the ground since Russia withdrew its Soyuz rockets earlier this year in response to European sanctions over Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine.
The job has been made more difficult by delays to the next-generation Ariane 6, which was supposed to have its maiden flight in 2020 but will now take off late next year.
ESA has even had to resort to using rival SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rockets to launch two upcoming science missions.
The launcher issue is regularly a source of “friction” between European countries, said Philippe Baptiste, director of France’s National Center for Space Studies.
But the talks got a boost on Tuesday when ESA’s top contributors France, Germany and Italy announced their support for the Ariane 6 as well as the small Vega-C launcher.
The agreement indicated that the countries recognized their “interdependence” in space and paved the way for the launchers to be paid for, said ESA director of space transport Daniel Neuenschwander.
Projects that help monitor the impact of climate change on Earth are expected to be less controversial.
A survey published by ESA last week showed that nine out of 10 European citizens “want to see space used even more to monitor and mitigate climate change,” Aschbacher said.
But more complicated could be ESA’s €750 million contribution to the European Union’s Iris satellite constellation project, which is slated to provide secure bloc-wide communication from 2027.
The project is mainly funded by the EU, which has different member states than ESA, most notably the UK.
– New astronauts –
Once the budget is adopted, ESA plans to field its latest batch of astronauts – the agency’s first new recruits since 2009.
Between four and six people have been chosen from more than 22,500 candidates after a long selection process.
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, facility director Frank De Winne said.
In addition, ESA is also expected to announce one or more astronauts with a physical disability, for the first time in the history of space travel.
More than 250 people applied for the position after ESA conducted a “parastronaut feasibility study”.