Washington — Manned spaceflight once was reserved for United States astronauts and Soviet cosmonauts, plus a few foreign guests. Now, Western Europeans are determined to get into orbit on their own.
France is moving ahead with the design of a small manned space shuttle called Hermes. It would be used for national missions and as transportation to and from either a US space station or a proposed European space facility.
Sized to carry four astronauts, Hermes, as now conceived, would be on the order of 50 feet long with a 32-foot wingspan. This would be somewhat similar to the minishuttle that the Soviets have been testing. It would carry a payload of several tons in a cargo bay.
Meanwhile, the 11-member European Space Agency (ESA) expects final approval next month for its own ambitious space-station program. This Columbus program, as it is called, is, in the first instance, a response to President Reagan's invitation for international participation in the US space-station effort. Thus its first phase would provide modules for the US station.
This participation is likely to amount to 10 to 15 percent of the US space station effort. It could include contributions based on the technology developed for the shuttle-carried European Spacelab or the shuttle's Canadian-made manipulator arm. It also, of course, will include space station crew. Western Europe, especially, is building an astronaut corps.
ESA anticipates an autonomous European space transportation and space-station system, however. Columbus would evolve toward such an independent facility, using the French shuttle for transportation.
ESA also expects final approval next month for the French-proposed HM60 program to develop an advanced rocket engine with around 200,000 pounds of thrust. This would form the basis of an advanced launcher to succeed the present Ariane system and for use with Hermes.
British Aerospace Dynamics is studying an unmanned reusable shuttle to ferry cargo to and from orbit and to service a space station. It would take off horizontally, using jet engines like an ordinary airplane, and land horizontally like the US shuttle. Capable of carrying 15,000 pounds, the company estimates it could orbit cargo at costs about half those of the manned shuttle. But by the time this craft would be in service early in the 21st century, the US would also have new rocket launchers and perhaps new shuttle craft. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), as part of the new US National Space Strategy, is studying possible next-generation space-transport systems. These include advanced shuttles, unmanned shuttles, and expendable rockets.
The British company also is designing a space transfer vehicle (STV), working under contract to Scott Science & Technology Inc., of Lancaster, Calif. STVs would be used to ferry satellites to and from a space station or from low Earth orbit, where they would be placed by a shuttle, to higher working orbits.
Finally, as a telling indication of where Europeans see their future in space , Western European astronauts formed their own professional association in July. This new Association of European Astronauts is to provide a focus for astronauts of various nationalities where they can share experiences and through which they can make their influence felt in Europe's space councils. Today, there are only seven European astronauts. But that number is expected to grow rapidly.
Commenting on this European activity, NASA Administrator James Beggs says: ''I think you will see the Europeans - and even the Japanese - getting very active in manned spaceflight. We can anticipate that they will collaborate with us in much of that. And in other areas, they will go their own way. They will go their own independent way. But they have become convinced - particularly in the last few years - that the future of space has to include the flight of human beings.''