ESA council meeting at ministerial level – a personal view
In my last blog entry, I referred to the preparations for the European Space Agency council meeting at ministerial level, to be held in Naples and the key topics 'the future of ESA', 'launch systems' and 'utilisation of the International Space Station'. Well, now that the conference has ended, it is time to take stock. At this point, I would like to highlight primarily my own personal experience, since the facts and agreed conclusions have already received plenty of attention in the media.
First of all, the outcome in factual terms: it was possible to reach consensus on many important issues. This included the relationship between ESA and the European Union (EU), and the solution proposed in my last blog entry, but also:
- the future of launchers
- Ariane 5 ME will be further developed with the aim of a first launch in 2017/2018.
- possible similarities between Ariane 5 and Ariane 6 will be investigated
- regarding Ariane 6, a study is being launched to clarify some important issues
- Earth observation, including new weather satellites, will be intensified
- agreement was reached on a project to build a geostationary satellite with fully-electric propulsion
- the operation of the International Space Station until 2020 and the development and construction of a service module (SM) based on the ATV for a future US Multipurpose Crew Vehicle as proposed by NASA as a Barter Element
... and a great deal more.
The preparations, particularly regarding the future of launch systems, were very strenuous. The different positions adopted by France and Germany gave rise to many meetings in Paris, Berlin, Geneva and elsewhere without any immediately recognisable breakthrough. Both sides had 'entrenched' themselves in fixed positions that appeared to be irreconcilable.
"We have, for some time, striven tirelessly to reach a common and meaningful solution with France. However, this effort has foundered upon the incredibly rigid stance adopted by France, one characterised by thoughts of national autonomy that also include military aspects. At present it is not even possible to arrive at a common European agreement."
This quote is not from 2012, but was instead formulated back in 1972 in a letter from the German Minister of Research Klaus von Dohnanyi to the German Chancellor at the time, Willy Brandt. Forty years ago, the decision under consideration was whether to start the Ariane programme or to participate in the US Shuttle programme with Spacelab. The result of the fifth European Space Conference (ESC) in December 1972 was the famous 'second package deal'. Both infrastructure programmes were pushed through with different national priorities – at the expense of satellite telecommunications. Albeit with much less conflict, finding a solution, especially between France and Germany, was once again not easy at first. But finally, also in 2012, a common and constructive solution was found that took into account the interests of both sides.
Understandably, ESA conducted itself in a passive manner to avoid alienating either of the two countries. It was the Swiss Secretary of State for Education and Research, Mauro Dell'Ambrogio, and the Luxembourg Minister for Justice, Media and Communication, François Biltgen, who got personally involved prior to the conference and endeavoured to come up with a solution. A summit meeting in Geneva, despite negotiations lasting until midnight, failed to achieve a successful outcome in the first instance. The explanation of the background, such as the way that a common text did eventually emerge and ultimately found its way, with no more than minor amendments, into the final conference document, will all come at a later time. In addition, the paper first had to be brought to the French and German sides for acceptance.
German delegation at the ESA Ministerial Council. Image: DLR/Thilo Kranz, CC-BY.
The haggling over words did little to advance the matter, but did satisfy those involved in that their understanding of the topic had helped to 'shape' the outcome. At the conference, a series of discussions then took place, and these were chaired very skilfully by the current ESA Council Chairmen Biltgen (Luxembourg) and Dell'Ambrogio (Switzerland), and the perfect interaction with the head of the German delegation, Secretary of State Peter Hintze, and the well organised DLR team, was ultimately successful. Here again, maintaining the balance between the various players – the Ministry, the Head of the German delegation, 'stakeholders' in the various programmes, representatives of ESA member states and the ESA Executive was a very challenging task. The fact that sleep was a casualty of the event is just one of those constants at ESA ministerial council conferences. In the end, there were a lot of 'winners', especially ESA itself, whose position was strengthened by the various projects, and by the paper that ushered in a new era in the relationship between ESA and the EU.
My personal opinion does not stop simply with a positive consideration of the really important decisions, but instead also encompasses the effort (in particular the unnecessary effort), not to mention a fair amount of entirely superfluous annoyance. The details of how individual solutions came about are indeed exciting, but at this time not really something for the public domain. The fact that the outcome of the conference was a very positive one is of course a very good thing, and something for which those involved in the event must take full credit, but this still does not excuse the unnecessary difficulties that arose. Lessons must be learned from this if we wish to avoid jeopardising the success of German space policy in the future.