ESA to set up committee to study human space exploration options

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WASHINGTON — The European Space Agency will establish a committee with representatives from both inside and outside the space industry to develop options for a European human space exploration program.

The creation of what ESA called a “high-level advisory group” was one of the major outcomes of a one-day “space summit” held in Toulouse, France, Feb. 16 that brought together representatives of member states of both ESA and the European Union to discuss future European space initiatives.

Josef Aschbacher, director general of ESA, said the proposal for the advisory group came from French President Emmanuel Macron. “We got a very clear message from President Macron that such a group is needed. He has asked ESA to put the group together,” he said at a press conference at the end of the summit.

In a speech earlier in the day, Macron mentioned his desire to study options for a European human spaceflight program. “Between now and summer, we want to come up with more specific European targets and ambitions for manned space travel,” he said through an interpreter. “We need to know what our priorities are, have the data to back it up and prepare the choices we are going to take for the November [ESA] ministerial meeting.”

Those options, he said, included a European Mars mission by the end of the next decade or an “ISS-style” project. “These are bold ambitions,” he said. “These are fundamental human issues that we will be working on for the next decades.”

Aschbacher said a draft mandate for the new advisory group will be presented to ESA members at a March meeting of the ESA Council, with the goal for the group to start working immediately thereafter. The committee will prepare an interim report in time for the ministerial meeting in November, with a final report by next spring.

“It is clear that this group has to be independent and comprising mostly non-space experts,” he said, “because we really would like to look at various aspects of society from an economic point of view, a historical point of view, a geopolitical point of view.” That means including people such as artists and philosophers in the group to look at various aspects of exploration beyond science and technology.

French economic minister Bruno Le Maire, who presided over the summit meeting, said the group would help Europe establish strategies for space exploration. “The Chinese have defined a strategy for exploration. The Americans, likewise,” he said through an interpreter at the press conference. “We haven’t done that yet, and we need the right method.”

The issues the group would look it, he said, would include what level of cooperation Europe will seek with other nations as well as the roles of humans versus robots. “What are the timetables? What sort of funding arrangements? These are all important questions, and we’ve tasked this expert group with finding answers so that we can then set guidelines.”

ESA had, in the weeks and months leading up to the summit, been pushing hard to win support for a human space exploration program. That included the release of a “European Astronauts’ Manifesto” by the European branch of the Association of Space Explorers, the professional organization of astronauts.

“A Europe that projects itself as a leading society must have the capabilities to set its own goals, and to decide for itself how far it wants to go in space exploration, united in our European values,” the document stated. “We now have a unique window of opportunity to accelerate and become a fully recognized partner of the global space endeavor.”

“While Europe is still at the forefront of many space endeavors, such as Earth observation, navigation and space science, it is lagging in the increasingly strategic domains of space transportation and exploration,” Luca Parmitano, an ESA astronaut, said in a luncheon speech at the summit, reading from the manifesto. “With utmost urgency, European leaders must decide now whether Europe shall accelerate its efforts to remain in the leading ranks of spacefaring nations that shape the future of this planet, or to fall behind into the role of a junior partner for decades to come.”

The summit endorsed other European space initiatives with few major developments. That includes a set of “accelerators” and “inspirators” previously backed by ESA members, of which human space exploration is one, as well as European Union initiatives on a secure connectivity constellation and space traffic management. Participants also agreed to hold a second summit in 2023.