European Space Agency Approves Record Budget To Meet New Challenges

European Space Agency (ESA) members approved a record $15.97 billion budget late November in Seville, Spain, promising to maintain Europe’s position in research and exploration as the United States and China press ahead in space and industry disruptors such as Elon Musk’s Space X present new challenges. The budget is split, with $14.1 billion committed for three years and the full $15.97 billion over five, an increase of some four billion euros on the previous spending plan.

Before the meeting, ESA officials hoped to get increased funding to ensure thatEurope does not lag behind. “It’s a surprise, even more than I proposed… this is good,” Jan Woerner, ESA director general, told a news conference after the two-day meeting ofministers from the 22 member states.

Woerner said the funding pledges meant that ESA could run a full series of programs plus additional scientific work, among other things, citing moves to increase Earth observation as part of efforts to monitor climate change.

“It is a giant step forward for Europe, 50 years after the moon landing,” said Jean-Yves Le Gall, head of the French space agency. “We have beaten all records in terms of financial contributions.”

Germany made the largest contribution to the budget, at some $3.66 billion, followed by France on $3 billion, Italy $2.55 billion and Britain* with $1.89 billion.

Among the projects ESA highlighted were the first gravitational wave detector in space, LISA, and the black hole mission Athena, designed to “enable fundamental advances in our understanding of the basic physics of the universe.”

ESA reiterated its commitment to the International Space Station until 2030 and its participation in the Gateway project, the first space station planned to orbit the moon.

“European astronauts will fly to the moon for the first time,” said an ESA closing statement, and the group will support a “ground-breaking Mars sample return mission in cooperation with NASA.”

In telecommunications, ESA will help develop flexible satellite systems integrated with 5G networks, “as well as next-generation optical technology for a fiber-like ‘network in the sky,’ marking a transformation in the satellite communication industry.”

Ministers also endorsed transition to the next generation of launchers, the massive Ariane 6 and the smaller Vega-C, and have given the green light to Space Rider, ESA’s new reusable spaceship.

Europe has established itself as a major space player, with the Ariane 6 launcher the latest off the production line and the Galileo GPS system operational.

This “new space” evolution has seen Musk develop reusable launchers for dramatically smaller yet more powerful satellites, many designed to create and run the “connected world” of driverless cars and countless other aspects of everyday life on earth. Critics say however that it has been slow to develop some key innovations—notably reusable rockets pioneered by the likes of Musk.

*The ESA is not a European Union body, so Britain’s position as a member remains unchanged despite Brexit. To reinforce that message, the UK Space Agency issued a statement recalling that Britain was one of ESA’s founding members, and detailing its commitment to a series of programs including Earth observation, 5G telecoms and space debris monitoring.