Air Show Begins with Uncertainty About Future Directions in Space

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The confusion about Europe’s future direction — perhaps best reflected in the chaos created by French and Dutch rejection of the European Union’s proposed constitutional treaty — is affecting Europe’s space sector as well. As they gather this week at the 46th Paris Air Show, many in the space sector are uncertain which way to turn, either internationally or within Europe.

In the United States, Europeans see a historic partner and global space leader whose motives are now viewed as suspect. European government officials openly question whether NASA will honor its full treaty commitments with respect to the international space station.

For long-term space exploration, Europeans are willing to be led by the United States, but only if the U.S. government engages in a full partnership — a development that will increasingly be hamstrung by U.S. technology-transfer regulations.

Roskosmos, Russia’s space agency, will be arriving in Paris this week with models of Russia’s proposed Clipper crew exploration vehicle. The clear subtext: Europe cannot count on the United States and should cut a deal with Russia.

European government officials say they have no problem playing the Russian card, but only if Russia can be persuaded that cooperation means more than sending European taxpayer money to Russian organizations.

The French space agency, CNES, is testing a five-year cooperation program with Russia which, in principle, will feature no exchange of funds after the first year. The European Space Agency (ESA) is considering a similar program for space exploration and for future servicing of the international space station once the U.S. space shuttle is retired.

Cooperation with China, which only a few years ago was considered taboo, is viewed now as both a promise and a threat.

The biggest single European program now under way — the Galileo satellite-navigation project — features an unprecedented Chinese involvement from the start. On June 9, the European government body currently managing Galileo was again in Beijing to deepen China’s participation.

Rainer Grohe, executive director of the Brussels-based Galileo Joint Undertaking, said in a June 9 statement that seven Galileo projects involving the “space, ground and applications” segments have been agreed to and will be placed under contract in July.

Companies preparing Galileo hardware have expressed reservations about China’s presence in Galileo. “Depending on how intellectual property rights are handled, it could lead to a situation where the global market for Galileo ground equipment is served exclusively by low-cost Chinese manufacturers,” said one European industry official whose company is eyeing the same work. “You think China would have a problem producing 100 million Galileo/GPS receivers and then selling them worldwide?” European government officials share these reservations, but see no way to reverse course.

“The fact that China has joined Europe on the Galileo program certainly has a political value,” ESA Director-General Jean-Jacques Dordain said June 1 in remarks in Darmstadt, Germany.

But in the same speech, Dordain also said: “The United States is no longer the only yardstick for achievement in space. Both India and China are investing a great deal and if we do not invest in new technologies, five years from now China will be selling much more than T-shirts. It will also be selling space technologies.”

While they figure out how to work with the United States, Russia and China, European government officials are still of at least two minds on how to work with one another.

ESA and the European Union appear to have set aside their mutual suspicions on behalf of a common space effort whose details are scheduled to be settled in November during an ESA-European Union Space Council. It will be the third such meeting of the two organizations’ government ministers.

While most member governments of ESA also are members of the European Union, the representatives those governments send to the ESA Council do not hail from the same government ministries as their nations’ representatives to the European Commission.

The potential differences in their views of future collaboration were in evidence following the second Space Council, held June 7 in Luxembourg.

In a summary issued after the meeting, the European Commission — the executive arm of the 25-nation European Union — said the 29 Space Council member governments “encouraged the commission” to complete a space policy by November, making it appear as though ESA will have only an advisory role in setting the policy. ESA officials describe the emerging policy as a joint effort.

And in a statement on a subject that remains highly controversial at ESA, the commission said ESA’s member governments should consider abandoning their national space agencies in favor of a common European effort. Most ESA nations maintain their own national space programs alongside their contributions to ESA programs .

France, ESA’s biggest contributor, splits its budget evenly between ESA contributions and French national programs. The French government earlier this year decided to freeze its ESA contribution through 2010, while letting its national budget rise by 1.5 percent annually.

“An important element for the member states will be to decide the extent to which they either direct their national initiatives towards an enhanced European program of space activities, or continue to fund activities at national level,” the European Commission statement says.

A longer ESA summary issued after the meeting makes no mention of such an idea.