Space | 05. June 2013 | posted by Jan Wörner | 3 Comments

The 'European' Pandora's Box

Unfortunately, the debate regarding the relationship between the European Space Agency (ESA) and the European Union (EU) continues, although the essential aspects have been clarified and the integration of ESA into the EU is off the table – not just for legal reasons. The myth of Pandora's Box tells the story of how Zeus gave Pandora a box with the instruction that it should be passed on to other people, but never be opened. However, Pandora opened the box, from which vices and bad habits escaped …

This discussion began with the probably well-intentioned proposal of integrating ESA into the EU, thereby creating an even stronger European space agency. However, this plan has, after analysis of the disadvantages that would have arisen from such an integration, been removed from the table. Now, rather than implementing the pragmatic approach of establishing goal-oriented relations between the European Union or respectively the European Commission (EC) and ESA, new demands (bad habits) and measures (vices) are being brought forward. In a recent paper, the European Commission insists on unfettered access to ESA bodies and, at the same time, 'regrets' that unfortunately reciprocity is, for legal reasons, not possible.

What is worse, individual statements from ESA Member States have had essential parts removed, and are being put forward as support. At a meeting, ESA clarified that participation in ESA bodies should be limited to those bodies and agenda items for which the EU provides significant financial contributions. As an aside, ESA and the EU both receive their contributions from European taxpayers, and for this reason they have to manage these with utmost care!

This interaction between ESA and the EU is essentially already a reality; the European Commission is even present in the ESA Council for relevant discussions. The situation with regard to the European GNSS Agency (GSA) is even more complicated; an entity that was initially created solely to control activities relating to the European satellite navigation system, Galileo. Now, according to a senior employee of the European Commission, GSA should become the space agency of the Commission. Such duplication must be strongly opposed, even if only for financial reasons. A convincing, although disruptive solution to this problem lies in the transfer of the GSA to a special facility within ESA. With such a step, the resolution of the ESA Council at Ministerial Level held in November 2012 in Naples would be implemented, in particular by ensuring specific aspects of the control of the Galileo activities, while at the same time allowing maximum efficiency. An expected opposition, based on legal constraints, cannot prevent good solutions from being implemented, because man can change what he has created.

Incidentally, Pandora's Box was opened for a second time, and in it was the hope of seeing the light of day once again …

Image: European flags in front of the European Astronaut Center (EAC) on the premises of DLR Cologne. Credit: ESA, S. Corvaja.


About the author

The ‘Jan Wörner’ blog was written by Johann-Dietrich ‘Jan’ Wörner during his time as the Chairman of the Executive Board of the German Aerospace Center (Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt; DLR). Jan Wörner wrote all the posts himself and then sent them to DLR Corporate Communications for editing, picture research and online publication. to authorpage


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Robert Clark
15. July 2013 at 22:46

There is another advantage of EU participation in space activities. The geographic return policy of the ESA while well-intentioned may not be the best approach for getting low cost spacecraft.

NASA has found both with the SpaceX Falcon 9 and with the Orbital Sciences Antares that 90%(!) of the development cost can be cut by following a commercial approach to their development. This means the government pays for only a portion of the development cost and the companies are responsible for the rest. This though would require the companies to use their funds in the most efficient manner in financing their portion of the cost. This means it can not be any fixed proportion that goes to any particular state for the development expenditures.

This is a great departure from how launchers were developed in the past and no doubt it would be regarded with some trepidation by many. But the point is the amount that would need to be "risked" by the government is so comparatively small and the capabilities of the resulting launchers would be so high, the proverbial risk-cost-benefit ratio would be very high.

Then even if the EU only supplied a small amount in the few hundred million euro range, a launcher at or close to the capabilities of the Ariane 6 could be developed.

I discuss this view here:

On the lasting importance of the SpaceX accomplishment, Page 5: a letter to the European space industry.

In it I describe how following this commercial space approach can finally give Europe an independent manned spaceflight capability, allow it to keep up with the low cost SpaceX pricing model, and provide a competitive launcher in price for the billion dollar contracts NASA has given to SpaceX and Orbital Sciences for cargo deliveries to the ISS.

Bob Clark