WASHINGTON – The new head of the European Space Agency has outlined its priorities for the next many years, from improving relations with the European Union to increasing commercialization activities.
The ESA Agenda 2025 document, published by the Agency on 7 April, reflects how its new Director-General, Josef Aschbacher, wants to use the Agency to ensure that Europe retains a role as a global leader in space.
“In my opinion, Europe needs to have a serious debate about where Europe will be in the next 10 to 15 years,” he said in a call to journalists to discuss the 17-page report. This includes the role of space in the economy and strategic plans and for “bringing new energy, new enthusiasm, new inspiration through new space programs.”
This plan has five priorities for the Agency’s next four years, the duration of Aschbacher’s first term as Head of the Agency. They include strengthening ties with the EU, increasing commercialization activities, developing space security and safety programs, working through “critical program challenges” with existing programs and transforming ESA’s internal processes.
At the top of the list is improving relations with the European Union, which has been strained in recent years as the EU expands its space ambitions. The EU is cooperating with ESA on the Galileo satellite navigation program and the Copernicus series of Earth observation satellites, but the EU has shown interest in new efforts as a broadband satellite constellation and the creation of an EU space program agency to oversee its activities.
Aschbacher, who earlier this year expressed a desire to ensure that ESA was the “go-to agency” for EU space activities, said that an immediate priority is to conclude a long-delayed Financial Framework Partnership Agreement (FFPA) between the two organizations manages their collaboration on space activities.
“We have resumed negotiations with fresh energy,” he said, including a joint letter signed by Aschbacher and Thierry Breton, European Union Internal Market Commissioner, signaling their intention to hammer out an agreement on the FFPA.
He declined to discuss the specific issues that kept the two sides from reaching an agreement. “So far, we are making positive progress,” he said. “Both sides have a very strong intention to move forward quickly. We hope to be ready with agreement and get it approved by both sides by the middle of this year. ”
Part of this effort to improve ESA-EU relations, which is on the agenda, is a proposal for a “space summit” conference in the spring of 2022, which brings European nations together for a high-level meeting, perhaps at the head of state level. to discuss Europe’s plans for space. The document says the meeting could be the forum for announcing a new European flagship program to join Galileo and Copernicus, such as the EU’s proposed broadband configuration or alternatives, as a new space management initiative. This event would be separate from ESA’s next ministerial meeting scheduled for the end of 2022.
Another priority that supports commercial space activities in Europe is a response to the growth of US space startups. “Private investment in space in the United States is much larger than it is in Europe, and there is, I think, a need to do something,” he said.
The agenda outlined three ways to support European commercial space activities such as encouraging talent to stay in Europe, improving contract mechanisms and partnerships to meet the demand for European space startups and accelerating the way ESA works with companies. “We need to be more responsive, more dynamic to be relevant to these companies,” he said, “and to ensure we add value and not get in the way of these companies.”
Two other elements of the plan, involving space security and safety and critical program challenges, involve existing ESA programs. With regard to space and security, Aschbacher called for an analysis of the capacity and need of ESA member countries to “identify complementary activities”, which ESA may pursue at the next ministerial meeting.
A critical program challenge involves access to space. “International competition puts a lot of pressure on our launcher development,” he said. A short-term priority is to successfully introduce the Vega-C and Ariane 6 vehicles by 2022, but he said ESA should also think about future vehicles with technologies such as recyclability. This includes, he said, “encouraging competition to a greater extent than we have seen before.”
In the midst of these various programs, Aschbacher said that a fifth priority is to reshape ESA itself, noting that one-fifth of its employees are eligible to retire by 2025. Although these retirements mean a loss of expertise, he described it as a opportunity to bring people with knowledge of other domains as well as improve the diversity and gender balance of the Agency’s workforce.
All of these changes, he said, are intended to keep Europe competitive with other major space powers, including the United States and China. He noted that China was “very active”, but did not discuss specific options for cooperation, although ESA officials recently spoke with colleagues in China’s National Space Administration.
One day before the release of ESA Agenda 2025, Aschbacher spoke with Steve Jurczyk, NASA’s acting administrator, to confirm their collaboration on a wide range of science and human spaceflight. “From my perspective, I want a stronger relationship with NASA,” he said. “There are plenty of opportunities on the horizon.” He added that improving US-EU relations under the Biden administration could also offer new opportunities for space cooperation.