Europe's cosmic ambitions
Europe, like President Bush, hopes to put a man on Mars - by 2030.
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.Skip to next paragraph
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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."
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."