AFTER 30 years of a space program that has gone from fledgling flight to international recognition in several important areas, Europe is looking for new propulsion to carry its program into the next 30 years of space exploration and development. The European space program is entering the 1990s with an impressive position in the satellite launching market - about half of the $10 billion annual commercial industry - and a recognized performance in Earth-observation technology, among others. The recent failure of a commercial Ariane rocket has not weakened this position. Yet the trajectory of the next decade includes areas of both promise and turbulence.
The 13-nation European Space Agency (ESA) is developing ambitious plans for a launcher, spacecraft, and modules to put people in space. But those costly projects are not advancing with political or scientific unanimity. The European space program, which built itself successfully on a philosophy of industrial applications and commercial success, is on less sure footing as it enters expensive spheres of space exploration that promise less certain commercial returns.
The European space effort ``is searching for its second wind,'' says Marc Giget, director and chief researcher at Euroconsult, an international consulting group with a focus on space affairs.
``There's a need for a new consensus'' - political, scientific, and public, he says - ``to address the uncertainties over the grand space projects that are planned.''
An accelerating concentration and globalization of space-related industries is challenging the budgeting and contracting system that has been a key to Europe-wide participation in - and general consensus on - ESA's $5 billion annual program.
Some observers question what effect Germany's growing economic and political weight will have on the European space effort, while others fear that the political upheaval in Eastern Europe could stall ESA's ambitions, and the growing budgets needed to fulfill them.
Adds Daniel Sacotte, assistant general director for strategy and planning of France's National Center for Space Studies, ``We have become a third pole [after the US and the USSR] in space, and we are going to develop that position.'' He says, nonetheless, that the high cost of putting people in space ``will be a grave problem for us as we advance. These are not ambitions of national stature.'' He adds, ``They will require all of Europe.''
For three decades, France has served as catalyst and goad to the European space effort, envisioning for Europe a Gaullist independence and prestige in space. Since the mid-'70s, Europe's space effort has grown from about one-fifth of the United States civilian space program to about 40 percent (see graph). Annual budget increases have averaged nearly 13 percent.
France still covers about 30 percent of ESA costs, compared with 25 percent for Germany, despite the latter's considerably larger economy and wealth. On the other hand, Great Britain has ``nearly disappeared from space,'' says Michel Petit, director general of the Space Affairs Bureau of France's Post, Telecommunications, and Space Ministry. The British, led by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, are philosophically opposed to costly development programs they say could be replaced by relying on less-expensive technology developed elsewhere.
At the same time, the Italians have boosted their involvement in space activities, and Spain is expressing growing interest as well.
``France for years was Europe's locomotive, but we see signs of movement towards a better balance, and that's healthy,'' says Karl Reuter, who heads the director general's cabinet at ESA. ``We're more truly European.''
Europe's first satellite launcher, Ariane 1, was developed with France paying two-thirds of the cost, notes Mr. Reuter. ``With Ariane 5, [the heavy launcher scheduled for service in 1995] France is down to 45 percent, with German participation up, and Italy at 15 percent.''
Under ESA's budgeting system, each country is required to pay its share of administrative and other mandatory costs according to its gross domestic product (GDP). But participation in specific projects is optional.
Thus France, with its traditional interest in communications and transportation independence, maintains heavy participation in Ariane and the Hermes shuttle-like project, which is still in initial development stages. The Germans and Italians, on the other hand, have a higher interest in Columbus, Europe's project for participation in the space station Freedom.
``It's a system that allows each country to pursue its national interests,'' says Reuter, noting that the British, despite their ``disappointing'' 1987 vote against ESA's manned spaceflight components, have returned to the Columbus project. ``I think the low point for British interest is past,'' he says.
What may be only beginning, however, are challenges to the budgeting system that has encouraged broad European involvement. Contracting for project development is carried out under a system of ``just returns,'' with companies in each country getting basically whatever percentage of a project their country financed.
But industries in aerospace, telecommunications, and other areas involved in space development are undergoing accelerated integration that is certain to make respect of the ``just returns'' rule more difficult. ``Europe had six satellite manufacturers,'' says Mr. Giget, ``but before too long we'll probably be down to two.''
Italy, which has burst into space involvement in recent years, is one country that might find its participation hampered by a lack of appropriate industries to take its contracts, Dr. Petit suggests.
The European Community's single-market act for 1992 presents further problems. Nine of ESA's 13 members are EC members. From 1993 on, there will be one vast market with contracts awarded not on national preference, but to low bidders. Would that lead to two contracting systems, one for EC members, and one for Austria, Norway, Sweden, and Switzerland?
``It's causing a lot of thought, we're not sure yet what these changes will mean for us,'' says Mr. Sacotte. He suggests that one alternative will be moving toward contracts based on jobs involved - but that does not address the question posed by 1992.
A more fundamental problem for Europe is that, by moving into manned space projects with Ariane 5, Hermes, and Columbus, the link to its traditional philosophy of commercial applications has been weakened, if not broken.
``The European program has been more of an industrial-commercial effort designed to keep Europe in developing technologies,'' says Giget. ``Ariane's reason for being was commercial, and that has worked.''
What worries some space specialists is how the effort will be affected when returns are not as evident. ``We haven't had the budgets of the vast military space programs in the US and the USSR,'' says Sacotte. ``We became accustomed to looking for quick returns.''
With the two space ``heavyweights'' maintaining their manned space programs, and Japan moving in that direction, Sacotte says it is nevertheless ``unthinkable'' that Europe would end up weakening ``what we've built up for 30 years.''
Anticipating public concerns about space costs over the next decade, however, Sacotte says that ESA will be wise to put renewed emphasis on its important Earth-observation projects and the role they will play in addressing growing environmental challenges. That should satisfy a desire for returns, he says, while the manned-space program that carries Europe into the 21st century continues to benefit from Europeans' imaginations.