DLR Chairman Says “Nein” on EU Takeover of ESA

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DLR Chairman Johann Dietrich Wörner

DLR Chairman Johann-Dietrich Wörner has dismissed the idea that European Space Agency (ESA) needs to be brought under the wing of the European Union (EU) in order to improve cooperation between the two organizations.

The European Commission, the EU’s top body, has recommended several options that would bring the independent space agency under the control of the union.

In the following excerpt from his blog, Wörner rejects the idea, saying that the coordination problems between ESA and the EU can be handled without making such major changes, and that the entire debate is a distraction from far more important issues.

Wörner’s position on this issue is important. Germany has been taking on an increasingly assertive role within ESA, passing France to become the largest national contributor to the budget of the 20-nation space agency. During ESA’s ministerial meeting last month, Germany used its clout to get much of what it wanted.

Meanwhile, the EU’s role in the space agency has increased substantially. The 27-nation organization contributed more money to ESA’s 2012 budget than any the space agency’s member nations. The EU is using its clout and funding in an effort to gain greater over space activities on the continent. France appears to be interested in closer ESA-EU ties, putting it on a possible collision course with Germany.

It’s a fascinating debate. However, living and working as I do in Mojave, I question whether it’s the right one. A commercial revolution is occurring here in the desert, and in places like Hawthorne, McGregor, North Las Vegas,  and even the Kennedy Space Center.

Private suborbital spacecraft are being built. Commercial missions are being flown to the International Space Station. Entrepreneurs are planning private missions to the moon and asteroids designed to unlock the riches of these heavenly bodies.

It’s far from clear to what extent this revolution will succeed. But, if it does, Europe will face far more profound questions than whether ESA remains as an independent body. The continent will need to change much of its approach to space. That doesn’t even seem to be on the table.

Wörner acknowledges some of this reality at the end of the blog excerpt that follows. However, the DLR chairman refers to issues that were due to be settled at the ministerial meeting, which occurred after the post was published.

….At the same time, the subject of the future relationship between the European Space Agency (ESA) and the European Union (EU) or the European Commission is taking centre stage. Documents intended to show the way forward, formulated as ‘resolutions’ or ‘communications’, are being drawn up by both sides. In this regard, very dogmatic positions are being adopted and presented with great seriousness as the ‘true solutions’ for bringing both sides closer together. An analytical consideration of the various stakeholders, of the legal bases of their documents and of their respective competencies does not, on quiet reflection, point in their stated directions.

Firstly there is ESA, with a successful history over the past nearly 50 years as a European space agency under the direct control of delegations from the member states, and with clear industrial policy requirements that are especially indispensible for space. Here, the internal allocation of mandatory and optional programmes continues to be sustainable in the future.

Likewise, the European Commission, as a body acting on behalf of the European Union, has successfully demonstrated in the past that in various fields – especially the funding of research – its mechanisms, which are based mainly on competition, can be viable for Europe.

The problems with the current discussions pertain to those of the participants’ communication and self-conception. Both sides are calling on the authority of the Treaty of Lisbon and the responsibilities specified therein. From this, the European Commission has made an absolute claim on the formulation of and overall responsibility for European space policy. On the other hand, ESA is insistent regarding its international foundations, its scope of activity, again in the area of space policy, as defined in its convention, and its parallel responsibility, which is clearly stated in the Treaty of Lisbon.

Handling this supposedly hot potato is inflaming tempers for no reason. Obviously, ESA should not relinquish its successful mechanisms, which go beyond industrially and politically important ‘geographical-return’ rules and programme councils. The European Commission’s requirement for adoption of all the EU rules will come to nothing and could be harmful. Nevertheless, making the alliance between ESA and the EU fit for the future is important. The simplest solution, but perhaps therefore not the one being approached in the circles of the professional participants in the discussion, is a separate EU programme within ESA. Here, the commission’s projects could be handled in accordance with EU rules and be carried out using the existing capabilities of ESA as a space agency. This programme area could come under the administrative responsibility of a separate directorate, under the auspices of ESA.

The question of responsibility for European space policy – or, to be more specific – for the formulation of recommendations for coordinating national and supranational space activities remains. Once again, no new institutional acrobatics are required. The Space Council, as the joint instrument of ESA and the EU, already deals with this.

So instead of having on-going heated debates about a cold potato, and in addition to pragmatic approaches for reinforcing institutional European space flight, it is important to push for solutions to specific, truly important and non-trivial matters – decisions concerning the future of launch systems, the Space Station and other activities permit no delay if Europe’s competitiveness is to be maintained and reinforced.