Ministers who oversee the European Space Agency’s (ESA’s) budget and programs on Wednesday extended a freeze on space science spending for another 4 years, despite warnings that such a move would imperil several of ESA’s ambitious plans for the next decade.
The decision is part of a much larger package setting Europe’s space policy for at least the next 6 years, agreed upon by ESA’s political masters from 14 member states after a contentious 2-day meeting. Space science is to receive 365 million Euro ($390 million) each year from 1999 to 2002, almost the same amount it has received each year since 1995. As a concession, the science directorate will get a separate, one-off payment of 40 million Euro, plus another 9 million Euro shaved from the agency’s general administrative budget. But neither payment compensates for the budget erosion from failing to keep pace with inflation.
The decision is certain to disappoint European space scientists and officials. “It’s not what we were working for,” an exhausted ESA Director-General Antonio Rodotа said after the meeting. “[ESA science chief] Roger Bonnet will now have to work extremely hard to find savings.” ESA officials had argued that unless the science budget got cost-of-living increases, a 150-million-Euro mission to Mars, planned for 2003, and two astronomy satellites could be jeopardized. The satellites, FIRST and Planck, are slated for launch in 2007 and together carry a price tag of 654 million Euro. Despite their refusal to furnish more funds, European ministers expressed their strong support for the planned missions, leaving ESA’s Space Policy Committee with the difficult job of reconciling political wishes with a limited budget. Rodotа declined to say whether the agency could save on other projects. But ministers seemed confident it could be done. “In science, as elsewhere, it is important to lay down priorities,”