Columbus’ Long Trip to Space

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NEWS ANALYSIS

PARIS — The Columbus laboratory launched Feb. 7 to the international space station has been on the books of the European Space Agency (ESA) so long that people tend to forget that it is a program that had a beginning and one day will have an end.

In that sense it resembles a satellite sent to a faraway comet. By the time it reaches its destination, many of the people involved in its design and production will have retired.

It was in November 1987 that ESA governments agreed to invest in the station project at the invitation of U.S. President Ronald Reagan. The expected launch date: 1997. Each subsequent year brought its share of new delays, new designs and new doubts as political leaders with no stake in the project came to power and questioned the value of the undertaking.

By October 1995, at a meeting of ESA government ministers in Toulouse, France, the project was facing complete collapse as its former sponsors, Germany and Italy, declared they were short of the needed cash to continue the project. By then, France already had abandoned its pet manned-space project, a crew-carrying space plane called Hermes that was approved at the same time as Columbus.

France had never hidden its reticence in joining a space station program so dependent on the United States. But in the run-up to the Toulouse ministerial conference, Germany gave France an ultimatum: Make a big investment in Columbus, or risk the collapse of a European consensus on all other space programs, including the French-led Ariane 5 rocket, which was a year away from its maiden flight.

Indications that France would take a large stake in the space station project sparked street demonstrations in Toulouse by employees of the French space agency, CNES. On the eve of the ministers’ gathering, CNES demonstrators carried signs warning that the station was “an American trap” to divert Europe’s scarce space resources from advanced satellite technology and other autonomy-reinforcing projects.

The president of CNES publicly stated his opposition to the station, challenging the emerging French government position. He promptly was dismissed from his post. France would agree to spend heavily on the space station alongside Germany and Italy.

France’s space minister at the time, Francois Fillon – now French prime minister – explained later that he agreed to a large French investment in the space station to avoid such an unraveling of Europe’s collective space effort.

The then latest crisis threatening the project had been resolved, but there would be others. With the arrival of a new German government, Germany by the turn of the decade had lost its former enthusiasm for manned space programs in general, and the station in particular. But by then it was too late to reverse course and Germany said it would, reluctantly, respect its financial commitments.

For current ESA managers, the challenge now is to re-inject enthusiasm in a project that has exhausted many of its longtime backers, and largely has been ignored by a younger generation.

ESA Director-General Jean-Jacques Dordain, whose manned-space-support credentials are not in doubt – he once applied to become an astronaut – said in mid January that the danger now is that Columbus’ arrival at the station will be viewed as the finale, not the opening act.

“It would be stupid to have invested for so long and not now take maximum benefit of the station,” Dordain said during a Jan. 14 press briefing. He said ESA is pushing NASA and the other station partners – Russia, Japan and Canada – to leave open the question of when the station will be retired. Each time Dordain evokes future space exploration as part of a multinational effort being considered by 14 global space powers, he insists on dragging Columbus into the conversation.

European politicians have said one of the reasons they back astronaut-related missions is that they stir the public imagination and may stem the slide in science and engineering students in Europe.

But even now, years after national European astronaut corps were merged into a single ESA team, national TV media in many European nations marshal resources for station coverage only if one of their own astronauts is part of the mission.

ESA is relegated to one six-month astronaut mission every two years – a frequency that corresponds to Europe’s 8.3 percent ownership stake in the non-Russian space station assets. Unless that flight frequency is substantially increased, keeping Europe’s public focused on the station may be as challenging as the 20 years of engineering that went into Columbus.