Europe's cosmic ambitions

Europe, like President Bush, hopes to put a man on Mars - by 2030.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

When the US Mars rover Spirit weakened last month - sending unintelligible data - Opportunity knocked for NASA, as its second rover landed safely on the Red Planet. But when Europe's lander, Beagle 2, failed to bark and disappeared, there was no backup vehicle for consolation.

The recent dramas on Mars offer a graphic illustration of the challenges facing European space scientists as they battle to keep up with their American counterparts exploring our solar system. Sometimes rivals, sometimes partners of their US colleagues, torn between competition and cooperation, the Europeans face one overriding reality: Their budgets are only one-sixth that of the US.

The difference between the US and European space programs "is one of quantity, not quality," insists Franco Ongaro, head of the European Space Agency's project to send a man to Mars. "We are still world class."

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Europe certainly entertains world-class ambitions: Mr. Ongaro's Aurora program, aiming to put a European astronaut on Mars by 2030 and return to the moon in the meantime, predates President Bush's recent proclamation of exactly the same vision by two years.

But Europe has yet to put its money where its mouth is: Ongaro could persuade European governments to come up with only a paltry 14 million euros (almost $18 million) for three years of initial studies of his grand plan. For the time being, says Peter de Selding, an analyst of the European space scene for Space News, "it's all pink smoke."

President Bush's speech, pledging to finish the International Space Station, revive and then retire the shuttle, and look ahead to robotic flights culminating in a manned Mars mission, was good news for the Europeans. For one thing, it validated the European Space Agency's approach of using the moon as a launching pad for exploring Mars. If the US had chosen another path, it would have left Aurora high and dry. "We would not pursue a different option from NASA independently," says Ongaro. "It would not make sense."

At the same time, the US schedule offers the prospect of hard cash for the European space program. Though the shuttle is due to be phased out in 2010, the planned US Crew Exploration Vehicle will not be in service until 2014, even if it is ready on time. That will leave the European launcher, Ariane, and the Russian Soyuz as the only ways of getting to the international space station.

In NASA's new budget projections, the US agency plans, for the first time, to contract flights with foreign launchers to fill the gap in its own program.

Cash is in short supply in Europe, whose total space budget, including military projects, will come to 5.4 billion euros this year - not much more than NASA spends on the shuttle alone.

In a White Paper published last November, the European Commission urged member states to double space spending over the next 10 years. "If Europe does not adopt the proposed approach to space policy," the commission warned, "it will decline as a space power because of an inability to develop new technologies and sustain applications with serious consequent damage to its overall competitiveness."

So far, there are few signs that European governments are ready to make that sort of commitment, but visions of a Mars mission could help. "Mars is the Holy Grail for us, because we do not expect major new spinoffs from what the Americans did 35 years ago" and ministers will not fund such projects, says Ongaro.

Complicating the picture, however, is the fact that the European Space Agency does not have full control over Europe's space activities: Some member states are loath to cede their own agencies' autonomy to a central body, and not all of them share the ESA's vision. Germany, for example, though the ESA's second-largest financial contributor, has not signed on to Aurora.

Still, small budgets have not stopped the Europeans from thinking big. Later this month the ESA will launch Rosetta, a comet-chasing spacecraft, aiming to drop a lander onto a comet in 10 years' time that will sample the primordial ices and gases that existed before our solar system's planets formed. And though Beagle 2 has shown no signs of life, its mothership, Mars Express, has been sending back remarkable pictures of the distant planet, and has found water there.

Ariane, the European launcher that flies from French Guiana, has proved a great commercial success, capturing half of the world launch market, despite initial American skepticism about the need for another disposable launch vehicle. And in a troubled telecoms satellite market, European manufacturers have stood toe to toe with their US competitors.

Transatlantic rivalry is most apparent in the European Union's decision to set up its own version of GPS, the US satellite based navigation and positioning system. Dubbed Galileo, the project is due to have 30 satellites in place by 2008, giving Europe strategic independence in this critical military and commercial field.

But there is much in space that Europe cannot do alone, and for which it counts on partnerships with other space powers, especially the US. "A race always attracts more interest than cooperation ... but we are cooperating fully with the Jet Propulsion Lab in the current Mars exploration," says Ongaro.

The orbiting International Space Station, due to be completed by 2010, is another example of how Europe and the US, along with Russia, Japan, and Canada, have pooled resources. The Hubble space telescope is a joint venture, and the ESA will help build its successor, the James Webb telescope. This is the model that ESA envisages for its Mars adventure, officials say - an international project giving everyone a chance to develop and perfect their engineering and science skills.

Mr. Bush also stressed the international dimension of his vision for space exploration, and though nobody in Europe's space community doubts that the US goal is dominance in space, officials here are confident that NASA would be keen to use European brain power and cash to augment its potential.

Before the Europeans can expect to be taken seriously as a partner in a Mars project, though, they need to do their own work. "We have to do an end-to-end Mars mission, not because we will do [a manned Mars flight] alone, but because if we don't have that understanding, how could we be partners with others?" says Ongaro. "If you don't understand what you are doing, you are not a partner, you are a tourist on board for the ride.

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