Status Report


By SpaceRef Editor
June 26, 2001
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Dear Colleagues,

It is six weeks since I have taken up my job as Director of the Science Programme of ESA, and I wish to continue the tradition of the bi-annual Newsletter, which was started by my predecessor Prof. R. M. Bonnet.

In fact, all the news on my programme nowadays can be found at the web site the Science Programme is maintaining with effort and success. Nevertheless, I wish to use the Newsletter to convey to you my feelings about the most important events. This message, I hope, will continue the dialogue that I have started in early April by meeting the scientific communities in the ESA Member States and their respective Delegations. I must add that, while taking up the difficult job of succeeding Prof. Bonnet, I have few recollections as pleasant as the meetings I had with the space science communities in each country, which all gave me a hearty welcome and asked interesting – and at times provocative – questions.

The Ministerial Conference (November 2001)

As you know, the medium-term destiny of the Science Programme is going to be decided at the next Council meeting at Ministerial level that will be held in Edinburgh on 14-15 November 2001. The ESA Director General’s proposal will be drafted shortly: the Science Programme is asking for a resumption of the inflation updating of the science budget and an increase of 5% per year for five years from 2002. At the end of the process in 2006, if successful, our budget will be 10% higher than it was before the Toulouse Council of Ministers. Ironically, at that point it would reach the level ESRO had in 1975, when ESA was formed. In other words, it will take 30 years to get back to where we were at the beginning. In the meantime the global GNP of the ESA Member States has increased by 18% since Toulouse and is larger than that of the United States.

The figures in the previous paragraph do not really respond to the question of what is really right for Europe to spend on space research. If the European Heads of State meant what they said last year, only science can be the basis of the "most competitive and dynamic knowledge-based economy in the world", a vision they expressed in Lisbon in 2000. Of course, science means both basic and applied science and they are linked. Although basic science in general is quite distinct from applied science, nonetheless they are symbiotic: the history of science tells us clearly that there can be no basic science without applied science and no applied science without basic science.

However, if we must become the most competitive and dynamic knowledge-based economy in the world, we have also to admit that we are not yet there. And we must compare ourselves with what the most competitive and dynamic knowledge-based economy in the world is doing now. The answer for space science is all too easy: the Office of Space Science of NASA next year will most probably have about 3000 Meuro (full cost accounting), eight times more than what we are asking, and five times more than what the whole of Europe will spend on space science.

Are our requests so unreasonable?

These issues are serious. If our budget continues to be eroded by inflation, there will be no way for us to sustain a long-term plan and it is this approach that has brought Europe together. All our investments, ideals, successes will remain at the margins of the mainstream of future research and will be quickly forgotten. The young generations of space scientists will have no option other than repeating the pilgrimage to the USA we did in the sixties, and hoping for the best.

The "Aurora" initiative

Another question you might want to ask is the relationship to the Science Programme of the new "Aurora" initiative, which deals with the exploration of the solar system. You might have heard that most probably a proposal will be made at the Ministerial Conference next November, and some of you might worry that this initiative will necessarily attract funds which would otherwise go to the Science Programme.

"Aurora" is a proposed envelope programme for robotic and perhaps eventually human exploration of the Solar System. It will have science goals and thereby should help us answer some fundamental questions about the uniqueness of terrestrial life forms. The programme would be concerned with defining a European framework for exploration and with the implementation of the corresponding exploration activity. Mars, the Moon and the Near Earth Objects (NEOs) would be Aurora’s exploration targets.

The new programme would build on and complement existing European and ESA programmes directed at the exploration of the Solar System, such as Cassini-Huygens, Rosetta, Mars Express, the Life Sciences programmes and would also extend European experience in human spaceflight. The Science Directorate of ESA, together with the Manned Spaceflight and Microgravity Directorate of ESA, is deeply involved in the definition of the programme and in the setting up of a management scheme, which should guarantee that there will be no destructive interference toward our programme. These will be the first tasks of the new programme if approved in November. One fact is clear: the programme will need a new level of commitment to space in Europe. Considering sending men beyond Earth orbit is not credible without planning for large enough resources. The programme will eventually cost tens of billions of dollars, and Europe cannot imagine participating in this enterprise with a few tens of Meuros per year. Once more, the model is there: NASA is planning to spend about 500M$ per year on the scientific preparation alone.

3. The Science Programme Committee meeting (28-29 May 2001)

Coming to matters of immediate interest, you might have heard that at the SPC meeting, which was held on 28-29 May 2001, two important decisions regarding international collaboration were taken.

The first decision was that of accepting the proposal of the Executive to enter a collaboration with the Chinese Double Star programme, a valid complement to Cluster 2. The Executive is ready to support the mission, including funding the payloads to be provided by several national agencies, to a level of 8 Meuro. However, as the vote was not unanimous, Spain voting against and a few other delegations abstaining, the discussion was taken up at Council on 20-21 June, where unanimous endorsement was achieved.

The second decision was that of rejecting the proposal made by the Russian Space Agency (Rosaviakosmos) to support the Spektrum-X-Gamma (SXG) mission at the level of 20.6 M$, to enable its launch by end 2003. This was a genuine decision of the SPC, and a very painful one, as many national agencies were involved in this mission and had already made significant efforts to provide a payload. But the SPC had to take into account the fact that resources in the ESA Member States were insufficient to guarantee that the European contributions to the payload would be ready for a launch in 2003. Now, our advisory structure had stated very clearly that the scientific interest of SXG would be severely degraded after 2003, and various ESA Member States declared that they would rather put their resources into the new missions to be launched after that date.

I realise, as the SPC realised, that the decision not to support SXG will be painful to many scientists and technicians who have worked on this mission for more than 10 years. However, I feel that other ways should be found to collaborate with Russia in space science, and I am committed to give my best efforts to bring about new forms of collaboration with a scientific community which I respect and admire.


I would conclude by urging all of you to be messengers for the Science Programme. The scientific community in Europe should not underestimate its strength. I invite you not to neglect any invitation to share the excitement of space science with all audiences of all ages, to approach your ESA delegations, your political representatives or even your Ministers to ask them what their intentions are. You should insist that if the Heads of State meant what they said, only science can be the basis of the "most competitive and dynamic knowledge-based economy in the world".

I have also announced to the SPC delegations my intention to create a presence on the Web for Space Science in Europe:

This could be a tool to carry out our messages, and I would like you to support this initiative and send us your comments and ideas.

Thus I came to the end of my newsletter. The next one will be written in December, after we know the results of the November Council meeting at Ministerial level. Whatever the result will be, I can assure you that I will have made all possible imaginable efforts to bring about a favourable conclusion for space science.

Please do the same.

David Southwood

SpaceRef staff editor.