Changes to ESA?

Update (3/7/2008): Welcome to readers of Carnival of Space #61. If you read an interesting space or astronomy themed blog post around the internet this week, send it to Fraser Cain and it might end up in Carnival of Space #62. After that public service announcement, on with the blog...

Via Orbiting Frog I see that President Sarkozy is wanting a more politically driven European Space Agency (ESA). The claim is that without more political control ESA may "fall behind" other space agencies. I must admit that I'm not sure what that statement means exactly.

ESA is a strange organisation in many ways. Unlike it's US counterpart, NASA, it is composedof 17 member countries. Many of these states are also in the European Union, but two - Switzerland and Norway - are not. Canada is considereda cooperating state and is obviously not in the EU either. This hasmeant that the EU, whilst having some influence on ESA, doesn't control it.

Under the reported French proposals, European Union politicians would have more say in what gets funded. Currently, ESA managers/scientists/engineers decide what projects will be funded based on scientific merit and by taking into account what other space agencies are/will be doing. This seems quite similar to the UK's Haldane Principle which leaves decisions on which science projects are funded to the scientific community. The BBC article claims that the French think the UK would be a good ally in this plan although the UK government claims to follow the Haldane Principle (otherwise it could bail out STFC).

Despite having a much smaller budget (€2.9 billion in 2006 not including funding of the national agencies BNSC, ASI, CNES, DLR and INTA) than NASA ($15.1 billion in 2006), ESA is currently supporting a host of missions: Mars Express (Mars), Venus Express (Venus), Rosetta (comet rendezvous), Ulysses (Sun), Cluster (Sun/Earth), INTEGRAL (gamma-ray observatory), XMM-Newton (X-ray observatory), and is a partner in Hubble, Cassini-Huygens (Saturn and Titan), SOHO (solar), and Double Star (Sun/Earth). It will soon be launching BepiColombo (Mercury), Planck (Cosmic Microwave Background), Herschel (Far infrared and sub-mm observatory), Gaia (3D mapping of the Milky Way), LISA pathfinder (gravitational waves) and is involved with JWST (infrared observatory). ESA also has plenty of future plans too so it isn't exactly slacking in terms of science output.

The proposals suggest that political control would give a greater emphasis to exploration, especially of Mars. Most people are in favour of that and indeed ESA already has plans to send robots and people to Mars. However, I'm worried that with more political control this will be at the expense of science missions as I don't really think more funding will become available. Of course, it is important that some effort is put into human exploration of Mars and the Moon but it seems a huge waste of resources for NASA, ESA, JAXA, CNSA and ISRO to all put huge effort into separate plans.

Although I don't think EU politicians know best which space projects to fund, that doesn't mean I wouldn't like to reform some aspects of ESA. I think there is probably more beauracracy than necessary and some other administrative changes could be made too. I would also suggest that ESA improve its external communication as the agency does a poor job of releasing catchy press releases, scientific results for public consumption and exciting websites. Exceptions such as ESA's Hubble site exist but plenty of exciting results get lost in the 24-hour news landscape. Things are improving but there is a long way to go to catch up with the likes of NASA. Increasing the budget in line with NASA's would certainly help!

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Tuesday 01st Jul 2008 (18:17 BST) | Permalink
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