Europeans in Orbit? Not So Fast
Shifts in economics and scientific goals may delay manned spaceflight until 21st century
EUROPE'S plans to build an independent program for sending its own citizens into space by the turn of the century are turning into a mirage that remains out of reach.Skip to next paragraph
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The victim of Germany's unexpectedly high reunification costs, wavering interest in manned spaceflight, and demands for less "show" and more science in space, a program that first hoped to rocket Europeans into space in this decade, and then early in the next, now looks certain to put off manned flight to after 2005 at least.
With disagreements among Europeans over space goals growing as important deliberations on the 13-country program take place, some observers now doubt that independent European manned spaceflight will occur any time in the early 21st century.
Despite the turbulence and hesitation in Europe over manned spaceflight, officials and observers see positive aspects in the questioning and broad stock-taking in space exploration. The benefits, many say, should include greater emphasis on science in service of mankind, more international cooperation, and a de-emphasis on costly "prestige" projects.
"It's a mistake to think of space uniquely in terms of manned flight," says Hubert Curien, France's minister of technology and space. "For us it is really several other areas - telecommunications, Earth observation, launch technology, scientific research - that represent the fundamental program."
Acknowledging that Europe's manned space program hangs in the balance, Mr. Curien, who is president of the International Year of Space, adds that whatever decisions the European space partners reach on controversial manned-flight infrastructure, "Those [decisions] should not weigh on these other important programs."
"The fact is," he says, "that the issues of prestige are much less important in the world today."
No matter how true that statement may be, it is still an astonishing observation from so eminent a figure in France's space effort. France first called for a European presence in space, has continued to push hardest for the prestigious programs without which Europe could never rival the United States and the Russians, and remains the largest financial participant in the European Space Agency (ESA).
"History has changed around us," says Curien. That does not mean Europe should "leave manned spaceflight to the Americans, as some incorrectly reason," he says, or that he will not lobby with France's partners to keep alive Hermes, ESA's French-built space-shuttle project.
"I am absolutely persuaded that Europe will not pull out of this kind of program, of this adventure," says Curien. Still, his acknowledgment that, for many Europeans, the shine is off high-cost projects like the $6 billion Hermes indicates that he knows some compromise will be necessary to keep Hermes alive. His remarks came the same week that German Economics Minister Jurgen Mollemann said his country's budget constraints are forcing it to give up "prestige gadgets."
One possible outcome is an unmanned, scaled-down "demonstrator" shuttle that ESA will suggest at the agency's mid-year membership meeting in Paris June 25. The project appears to have the support of the shuttle's industrial backers, who fear the blow of a complete cancellation. With France paying almost half the nearly $4 billion development cost, most observers believe the Germans will go along.
BUT that plan reflects what some circles fear is Europe's retreat from space. After ESA officials recently unveiled the Hermes "demonstrator" and acknowledged that a manned Hermes might only fly with cooperation from the US, Russia, or Japan, the director of France's space-studies agency, the CNES, said that confusion and turmoil in the European agency "can no longer be denied."