Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher is urging West Germany to establish a national space agency, and to press for European ``autonomy'' in space by the end of this century. So far the response to his nudging is only lukewarm, especially in the powerful Finance Ministry. Mr. Genscher is also promoting the West German candidate for a 1990s European launcher: the S"anger, now being developed with first-stage propulsion by a supersonic air-breathing engine, then second-stage rocket propulsion.
The European countries together are wealthier than the United States, and three times as rich as either the Soviet Union or Japan, he has been pointing out, most recently in a speech this month at the German Economic Congress in Cologne.
And he asserted that: ``A Europe that just watches passively how others like America, the Soviet Union, Japan, and perhaps China and India form the space future - such a Europe would step off the world stage. It would abdicate politically, economically, and intellectually; it would gamble away its own future.''
With an eye to his forum, Genscher stressed the economic benefits of a major space program, especially in spin off in microelectronics, new materials, biotechnology, and future airplane production.
He defined the most important task on the way to this future as reducing launch costs from their present $8,000 per kilogram down to $80 per kg or less.
Genscher also took pains to describe space ventures as friend rather than foe of the environment and peace. Satellites help mankind to map resources, harvests, and fish stocks, he said, and they might eventually provide a steady supply of clean solar energy. And independent reconnaissance satellites could free Europe from depending on US intelligence for arms control verification.
He hoped that such programs as the colonization of Mars, perhaps through Soviet-American or multilateral cooperation might contribute ``also to our consciousness of the [interdependent] living together of men on earth.''
Genscher also praised the impetus that European space cooperation could give to unification of Europe. Genscher said that he currently sees a reformulation of the astronomical and astrophysical concepts of the universe taking place, and Europe should bring its own values and ideals to bear on this process.
After 20 years of technical experience in space, Europe has proved its know-how in the launcher rocket Ariane, high-quality satellites, and the Spacelab it sent up in the US shuttle. Genscher said it is now time to bring everything together in the European Space Agency into a coherent program. Without mentioning European disputes with the US over the experiments and who will participate in the Columbus project - a manned laboratory module for the American space station in the mid-1990s - he called for ``an autonomous European capability in manned and unmanned spaceflight'' so that Europe could graduate ``from a junior partnership to a partnership of equal rights.''
On his bid to form a West German space agency, Genscher suggested that the time is ripe, given Bonn's high level of participation in US and European projects.