ESA Director-General Jan Woerner, left, and EU Commission DG-Grow chief Elzbieta Bienkowska, whose directorate manages most EU space spending. Credit: ESA

PARIS — The underlying tensions between the European Commission and the European Space Agency (ESA) have been laid bare in a commission document preparing its space strategy and ESA Director-General Jan Woerner’s written response to it.

The document is the commission’s proposal for establishing the European Union’s new space priorities, and the creation of the European Union Agency for the Space Programme.

For ESA, the proposal validates every nightmare it has had about the commission’s growing space ambition. The commission is now ESA’s biggest single source of funds, paying most of the cost of Europe’s Galileo navigation and Copernicus environmental monitoring programs, which the commission owns.

And there’s more to come in the commission’s proposed seven-year, 16-billion-euro ($18-billion) space budget for 2021-2027. Beyond this budget, the commission has identified potential space program funding in its research budget and a proposed new European Defense Fund.

ESA has been happy to see the commission’s new space enthusiasm, which has brought more government spending into the sector. But the agency has worried that sooner or later, its status as the de facto manager of European space would be challenged, and that the commission would and try to usurp ESA’s position.

The commission document and Woerner’s detailed responses — — offer more than enough evidence that the two organizations are far from the entente cordiale that will be needed at a time when space technology is viewed as a political and economic asset. The document is undated but was produced in the second half of 2018 and has only now been made public.

Whether by accident or design, the commission’s proposed regulation setting up its space program and agency is studded with slights. Many of Woerner’s proposed edits to the document consist in adding “European Space Agency” to the organizations to be involved in the policy.

But a couple of policy proposals go further than that. Here are two:

Commission: New partnership with ESA requires overhaul of ESA practices

— ESA and the commission are working on a multi-year Financial Framework Partnership Agreement (FFPA) to update a 2004 agreement and to account for the evolution of Europe’s space strategy and its financing.

For ESA, the new agreement is a partnership of equals. But the commission, in its proposal, said any new framework needs to be preceded by ESA’s “establishing internal structures and of an operational method, in particular for decision-making, management methods and liability, which make it possible to assure maximum protection for the interests of the Union and to comply with its decisions, including for the activities financed by the European Space Agency, which can have an impact on the [EU] program.”

In short: ESA must commit to a wholesale revamp of its internal procedures.

Woerner’s response: “This paragraph must be deleted as it is in direct breach of the Framework Agreement of 2004 and as such cannot be implemented by ESA.”

Accepting the commission proposal would “give an unlimited and effective control to the EIU on ESA’s own activities, leading to a loss of control of member states on ESA…. Further, the FFPA “should be subject to an examination [by] the member states in order to ensure that the interests of ESA are protected.”

ESA is a 22-nation international organization that is not affiliated with the 28-nation EU, soon to be 27 after Britain’s departure.

Commission wants ESA to pay financial penalties for program delays

— The document proposes that when EU-funded, ESA-managed programs do not meet their initial schedule or cost targets, the commission may impose “penalties against the European Space Agency where this discrepancy is directly attributable to it.”

Commission officials in the past have voiced concerns that ESA was too cozy with industry and too indulgent of program cost overruns and schedule delays. Some years ago the commission ordered an audit of the Galileo program to verify these suspicions, only to have the auditors conclude that ESA’s program management was solid.

Galileo satellites. Credit: ESA

More recently, ESA has imposed penalties on contractors for Galileo-related schedule slips.

In his response, Woerner proposed that the commission simply remove the reference to penalties, saying that some delays are due to a launch failure unrelated to program management. “A penalty scheme is inappropriate,” Woerner said.

Some of the differences between the two organizations are obvious turf defenses:

— The commission said its goal is, broadly, to manage Europe’s space program. ESA said the commission. ESA responded that the commission is best suited to setting high-level program requirements, with ESA and other experts handling the technical and operational specifications.

— The commission proposal would make the commission responsible for aggregating European governments’ launch demand to negotiate a bulk contract with Europe’s Arianespace. ESA responded that all the signatories to this contract, including ESA, should be jointly involved.

ESA: Commission’s proposed Copernicus budget is 2 billion euros short

— In what may be a stretch for ESA, Woerner protested that the commission proposal omits any ESA role in the Govsatcom program, which is part of the proposed 2021-2027 budget. The agency wants a role as program observer.

In addition, Woerner proposed adding 1 billion euros to the commission’s proposed Govsatcom budget of 500 million euros between 2021 and 2027 to give the program a real mandate.

The European Commission owns the Copernicus environment-monitoring system, but ESA is a large contributor to it. Credit: ESA

— The commission proposal omits ESA as a first-tier manager of the Copernicus program, which is owned by the commission but for which ESA has financed about 30% of the cost so far.

ESA’s governments plan to meet in November to agree on a multi-year program and related budget, and a next-generation Copernicus line of Sentinel satellites is part of the package.

— Woerner’s response said the commission’s proposed 2021-2027 budget of 5.8 billion euros for Copernicus is 2 billion euros short of the commission’s own long-term Copernicus scenario.

Space Surveillance: Commission wants only non-commercial use

— The commission’s budget includes 500 million euros for a Space Surveillance and Tracking (SST) program.

In its program proposal, the commission said all data from the SST program will be “used for non-commercial purposes.”

Woerner disagreed with this, saying space situational awareness (SSA) has commercial potential that has been demonstrated in the United States and is now starting to show results in Europe.

“The new U.S. policy selects the increasing commercialization of SSA/SST,” Woerner said. “A number of commercial tools and services rely on a liberal data policy for at least an unclassified subset of the data. The limitation is also in conflict with the EU objective to create new jobs and new markets for European industry.”

For ESA, commission wants to steal its lunch, and even its name

Some European governments, and ESA, have gone so far as to question whether the EU space agency’s name — the European Union Agency for the Space Program — too closely resembles ESA:

Woerner said: “‘European Space Agency’ is a worldwide recognized brand also legally protected as the name of an international organization legally equivalent to that of a State. It is also filed and protected as an EU trademark  in all classes of products and services related to space activities.

“In order to avoid confusion, the name of the EU Agency should be better distinguished from ESA as to reflect their specific mandates.”

For now, it seems obvious that the ‘specific mandates’ are far from resolved.