David Parker, director of Human and Robotic Exploration, European Space Agency. Credit: ESA

WASHINGTON— The 22-nation European Space Agency (ESA) is asking its governments for 1.89 billion euros ($2.11 billion) in new funding for a multi-year exploration program to include continued operations of the International Space Station (ISS), contributions to NASA’s Gateway exploration program and an initial tranche for a NASA-led Mars sample-return mission.

On its own, that amount of funding stretched over several years is not huge by ESA standards. The challenge for David Parker, ESA’s director of human spaceflight and robotic exploration, lies in the fact that most of the money makes sense only as part of a broader investment totaling 7.3 billion euros over a decade.

An implicit commitment to that larger budget is embedded in what Parker is seeking at the triennial conference of ESA government ministers, to be held Nov. 27-28 in Seville, Spain.

In an Oct. 21 interview here during the International Astronautical Congress (IAC), Parker discussed his program goals, including his confidence in NASA’s exploration commitment, Russian technology and his expectation that ISS could be operated until 2030.

But the first topic is ExoMars, ESA’s rover mission with Russia whose summer 2020 launch — miss it and wait two years for the next opportunity — is under pressure following parachute-deployment failures.

How serious is the ExoMars parachute issue?

It’s obviously serious in that we must have a qualified parachute by the time of the qualification acceptance review, planned for the late April or early May. The beginning of May is a kind of decision point.

So you must have a definitive resolution of the issue by early May?

Yes. I am confident that we will get a parachute. We have to convince ourselves and ESA’s Inspector-General, who independently advises the Director-General. The Inspector-General reviews the project and gives gives the thumb’s up. So that is the critical thing.

You have six-plus months.

The current plan is do two new high-altitude drop tests of the type that were anomalous last time in February or March. So that is the end-point target.

We are thankful for the very open support of NASA, which has permitted us to use JPL facilities for some ground tests. There are dynamic extraction tests to see the way the parachute behaves as it is coming out of the bag. The testing would involve repeated ground tests of the extraction process and also interrupting it as it is happening to examine it and then start again, and go a little further out, to isolate where the problem is, and see whether the foreseen redesign works.

The main parachute bag is kind of donut-shaped and wraps around the central structure where the first parachute comes out. So the packing is complicated.

It’s just deployment of the main parachute that has issues?


Is parachute deployment still so challenging?

It is challenging. You can see the problems that SpaceX has had with their parachutes for Dragon. I am an aerodynamicist by background. Aerodynamics are complicated by themselves. It’s nonlinear, dynamic behavior of devices as they deploy.

The problems that we have had occurred before the parachute reaches maximum aerodynamic loads. The tears have happened before that.

A lot of ground tests are being set up with JPL and also with the US company Airborne Systems, which provides parachutes for SpaceX and Orion and others. They are going to manufacture ground test parachutes and do tests for us.

Credit: ESA

It is still our intention that the actual flight parachutes will be done by the Italian company, Arescosmo. We are proceeding in parallel with Airborne to manufacture ground test articles quickly and to do tests from now to Christmas.

The parachute system under the leadership of Thales Alenia Space (TAS) France, which then subcontract to TAS Italy.

They have heritage in this?

They go back to Huygens [ESA’s 2005 mission that landed on Saturn’s moon, Titan] and they are responsible for the parachute system. People from the British company, Martin-Baker, now run a company called Vorticity. All these companies — TAS, Vorticity, Arescosmo — are involved in the design.

So we have work to do and we have to get on with it.

As we sit here today, your assessment is that this ought to be doable?

Yes. It’s experimenting and testing and if we don’t have enough positive test results, then we have an issue. But I believe it’s a solvable issue. It’s engineering.

ESA’s ExoMars rover. Credit: Airbus

One more on ExoMars: How much transparency do you have into what’s going on in Russia on their end of the mission?

We have people who go over regularly. Roscosmos is the source of the funding, Lavochkin is the prime contractor, and they are using TsNIIMash to provide independent verification. In some cases we will never see specific test results that relate to propulsion systems.

Russia’s version of the US ITAR technology restrictions.

But what we are getting is documentation that shows tests have been done that demonstrate the validity of the verification. So even if we don’t see the specific tests results, somebody on the Russian side is demonstrating that all these tests have been done and TsNIIMash has confirmed they have been done appropriately. So we have confidence.

That’s step 1. Step 2 is that all the hardware is now sitting inside a thermal-vacuum chamber in Cannes [at TAS] and we will throughly test it.

Every piece of Russian ExoMars hardware?

Yes. It is all in Cannes. The one thing we are waiting for are the Russian scientific instruments fo the landing platform. They will be swapped out when it comes out of the clean room.

No concerns about a lack of transparency in Russia? There’s a history there.

Yes, but these are also the people who make Soyuz work time in and time out. Even when there was a [Soyuz] anomaly the crew were back on the ground, drinking tea, hours later. So there’s a level of redundancy and sophistication in that system that maybe some others don’t have.

So everything on the critical path as far as ESA is concerned is that might prevent you from giving a go-ahead in 2020 is now in Cannes being tested.

Yes. By Christmas, we should have test results from the spacecraft composite. In parallel the rover is in qualification testing in Toulouse [Airbus Defence and Space]. They have finished the acoustic tests and are about to start the remaining tests. The parachute program is going on in parallel.

So we don’t have too many days of contingency. But we have positive days of contingency. It’s a race against time.

You are not asking for any new money for ExoMars at the ministerial conference in November?

No. The funds we have in reserve [90 million euros] were from 2016 and are for the launch campaign and and operations.

The biggest slice, “Humans in Low Earth Orbit,” includes European Service Modules for NASA’s Orion crew-transport vehicle that will go beyond low Earth orbit but are formally part of the ESA-NASA International Space Station barter agreement. The “Mars Robotic” program includes around 500 million euros of initial funding for a Mars Sample Return program with NASA. Credit: ESA

The European Exploration Envelope Program (E3P] seeking government approval Nov. 27-28

Your E3P includes a bulk purchase of European Service Modules (ESM) that will power NASA’s Orion crew-transport vehicle.

We will be asking for funds for ESM-4 and to protect the schedule for ESMs 4-6. We will be asking industry to give us cost estimates for 4-9 and then we will slice it into the bits we need now.

You are asking for a first tranche of 390 million euros.

For this ministerial, we need the remaining funding for ESM-3, full funding for ESM-4 and what we call the schedule protection costs for ESM-5 and 6. That’s the 390 million euros.

So it’s not complete units of service modules. So far we only have a fraction of the funding needed for ESM-3. For ESM-5 and 6, it’s for long-lead items.

How much is left to fund on ESM-3?

I am not going to discuss that because then you’ll be able to work out our price range for ESM-4. We are in negotiations with Airbus on this now. They have a price on the table.

So these figures are just notional, pending negotiations with Airbus?

No, those are our budget allocations. We are asking for a budget allocation and then Airbus has to fit into that. This is our request. We may not get everything we’re asking for from the member states.

Your ESM budget plan goes out to 2031. I guess you’re looking for a sharp drop in per-module recurring costs for ESMs 5-6.

Yes, that is the hope. Lockheed has achieved that for Orion. They have approval for Orions 3-5, and they are going to ask for 6-8 in 2022, and the others after that.

Could your long-term plan be upset by a future NASA decision? The ESMs are related to the International Space Station.

The money we’re asking for will pay our station costs out to 2022. Then the 2022 ministerial will get us to 2024. Nothing after that has been formalized with NASA in any way.

What is your view on how long ISS should remain operational?

We think there is a science use for it out to 2030. Our ISS science program is full until 2024. We are starting a project to modernize ISS orbital and ground infrastructure — the computer systems and so on. It’s like refurbishing your house. If we are out to 2030 this will allow us to bring new companies into the program.

We have ITTs going out shortly to allow the modernization of the Columbus module to 2030.

For you, ISS’s science value is as high as ever?

We are getting more science than ever before. For the Alexander Gerst mission [June-December 2018], the plan was 100 hours of science and he achieved 200 hours of science. We were using common hours that belong to some of the other partners because we had so much science to do.

There are ideas for additional scientific equipment for the station. We have a science program that is full as far as we can see.

What is the assessment of the operational lifetime of the pressurized modules?

It’s out to 2028. That’s what they have been qualified for and that has been confirmed. For us, the goal is to get to 2024 and to prepare to go beyond, subject to a decision of all the Station partners. In Europe, the political decision has been made to go go 2024. We are not asking for the political decision to go beyond 2024 yet. What we are going is making sure we are ready, technically.

A commercial company considering ISS work will still have some doubt about how long this goes.

Yes, of course. But remember, NASA’s budget is annual. So in a sense there is more stability on the European side.

Will a decision continuing ISS to 2028 or 2030 be impacted by Gateway or other exploration programs, like Mars?

We have put together a program that is affordable for do everything we want to do.

That’s the 1.89 billion euros?

Yes. It is an increase from where we are today, but it’s designed to get us to a new, sustainable plateau. And it is actually to get us back to the average expenditure on exploration by Europe over the last 25 years, which is 660 million euros a year. That’s the average; 2018-19 represents the low point, and we want to get back to the average.

The years 2018-19 will be low points for ESA’s exploration budget if the agency’s proposed spending plan is accepted by its governments at the Nov. 28-29 ministerial conference. ESA is asking for a budget that plateaus at some 660 million euros per year. Credit: ESA

Nearly half our proposal is related to humans in LEO. A quarter is related to Moon, and a quarter related to Mars.

There’s still debate about NASA’s exploration schedule. What are you telling your delegations about what’s prudent to do now?

First, we want the Service Modules, which is a contribution to Step 1. Step 2 is to start development of the two main European elements for Gateway — the International Habitation Module and ESPRIT [ESA System Providing Refueling, Infrastructure and Telecommunications]. A launch in 2025 is completely doable. That would have Japanese contributions for the life support systems.

The main Habitation Module along with the U.S. HALO [Habitation and Logistics Outpost] module are about the same size. The Invitation to Tender to industry to give us committed prices was released over the summer.

We are waiting for proposals from the TAS Italy team, including OHB; and the Airbus Germany team.

When are these proposals from industry due back to you?

We should get they proposals by the end of November. It’s part of the plan to have the international agreements, the industrial proposals and the financial wherewithal from the member states coming together by the end of the year.

And contracts would be signed….?

By the spring of next year. And then, if we have the MoU, the DG would sign that in the course of next year. That’s step 1.

Step 2 is ESPRIT, which is the technological portion. We provide high-data-rate comms from Gateway to the surface of the Moon; refueling for the whole Gateway, so a bunch of fuel tanks; and also a kind of viewing gallery with windows. This module would come along later, around 2027.

We can tell the member states that the things we want to do are on realistic schedules and are part of a sustainable exploration program. But we need to provide some bits of technology that bolt onto the HALO for the refueling elements, the connectors and piping, that we need to provide to NASA.

In our budget, this is part of Cornerstone 2, Humans Beyond Low Earth Orbit.

Nothing here is overly exposed to the risk of NASA or the U.S. Congress changing its mind?

We can go step by step. Most of these projects extend over several ministerial periods. Now we’re just starting. That’s why this ministerial is so important. We are starting the next decade or more, for exploration.

Everything is moving forward in the normal way. The entire exploration community outside the U.S. has been waiting for the day when the U.S. says: We’re going to the Moon.

What about cooperation with China in LEO?

We have jointly selected science experiments and joint Chinese-European science teams. That’s where cooperation starts and that’s where you build confidence.

And the Luna 25 and Luna 27 lunar-exploration missions with Russia?

It’s happening more slowly than I would like, no question about that. We are delivering our first hardware. We have negotiated the contract for the drill and the sample analysis package. We are waiting for some decisions on the Roscosmos side on how to use the lander package. it will be used but it has to be determined how it will be included.

They have been giving priority to ExoMars and I have been quite happy about that.

You are asking for around 500 million euros for Mars Sample Return, with an expected total budget over a decade of 1.5 billion euros.

Mars Sample Return is a high priority. It’s a big financial request to start things going. It’s about 540 million all in. The NASA 2020 budget announcement is in February.

The Mars Sample Return mission’s Earth Return Orbiter. Credit: ESA

It’s the biggest new exploration project for ESA. The goal is the first spacecraft to go to Mars and back, the Earth Return Orbiter. That’s out to industry for committing proposals at the moment. In this case it is a battle between Airbus and Thales Italy.

That ITT went out in July and we are waiting for committing proposals for around the time of the ministerial.

Then, if we get the money, we will go for direct negotiations for the fetch rover with Airbus, based on ExoMars heritage.

Mars Sample Return includes a big thing, which is the spacecraft. It’s like Bepi Colombo [ESA’s mission to Mercury, launched in October] on steroids. BepiColombo has 17 kW of solar array and we need around 40kW, the biggest solar electric propulsion system ever built by Europe.

Has anyone anywhere built an array of more than 40 kW?

Gateway will need that much.

Here’s the whole mission sequence:  Mars 2020 gets its samples, puts them in containers and caches them in various locations. The NASA lander launches in 2026, with a small European rover that has to travel 5-10x faster than the ExoMars rover, with AI and autonomous navigation. It’s a very exciting program.