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.
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."
CNES director Jean Daniel Levy added pointedly that "it is not outdated to speak of European autonomy in space," and especially not in "space transport."
Such pleadings are unlikely to get far with the Germans, however, who have already decided to limit their space outlays to a 2.5 percent growth in coming years, against the 15 percent increases ESA had sought.
"We simply can't afford all the big programs we once envisioned," says Wolfgang Grillo, director of finance and administration at the German space agency (DARA). Of the "big three" projects adopted by ESA in 1987 - Hermes, the Ariane V launcher, and space-station development - "There simply has to be some scaling back," Mr. Grillo says.
Although negotiations continue, comments from German, Italian, and French officials suggest that Hermes will be reduced to the "demonstrator," the minimum necessary for Europe to develop the reentry expertise it now lacks. A free-flying space lab to be built in Germany, and which a manned Hermes was to begin servicing early in the next century, will be dropped.
ON the other hand "Columbus," a manned laboratory and Europe's contribution to the international space station Freedom developed and coordinated by NASA, will continue fully funded. And Ariane V, a rocket that represents the next step in Europe's commercially successful satellite-launch program, will be largely untouched, although greater financial participation from industry may be requested.
The cost-cutting in Europe's space program - which has a total annual budget of about $6 billion, or one-fifth the $30 billion the US spends - will undoubtedly lead ESA to develop its cooperation with international partners.
ESA projects, for example, that growing cooperation with the Russians on the Hermes demonstrator will cut the project's cost by about 20 percent.
But some Europeans warn of dangers in putting too much stock in cooperation. Already Euroconsult, a Paris-based space-consulting group, predicts a recession next year in Europe's space-related industries because of anticipated spending cuts.
Too much "cooperation" in the form of merely buying technology from the Russians, critics warn, poses risks for European science. "We have to consider carefully the two sides of the argument: those who say, `Why reinvent everything all over again when the Russians are right here?' and those who say, `Why should we fire our engineers just to keep the Russians in business?' " says Grillo. "Both sides have merit."
If project-trimming and wider cooperation are indeed in order, then industry would like to know about it and plan for it - which is why German and Italian officials argue for decisions on the future of big projects to be made at this month's ESA meeting.
The French say they aren't ready, however, and will stall for final decisions on projects like Hermes to be taken at an ESA ministerial meeting in Spain in November.
European officials insist, however, that the disagreements, slowdowns, and re-direction of priorities their space program is experiencing should not obscure the fact that manned spaceflight remains an eventual goal.
"For the German government there is no change in the overall goals, and that includes man in space," says Jan-Balden Mennicken, director general for space of the German Ministry of Research and Technology.
For France's Curien, what will push Europeans to maintain that goal is the simple conviction that manned space exploration will grow in the future.
"It will come down to not letting the [technological] distance between us and the Americans grow," he says, and to the "moral obligation" to "study man in an environment where we know he is going to be."