It is a renewed effort by the agency to ignite enthusiasm for a European role in future manned space flight after a similar proposal was rejected by ESA governments in December.
Judging from a debate here June 13 among European members of parliament, Britain will reject the program and France will embrace it.
ESA astronaut Frank de Winne said the agency would propose a Clipper preparatory program during a meeting of ESA’s ruling council June 21-22. The program, to last until 2008, would cost 30 million euros ($38 million) and lay the groundwork for a Euro-Russian partnership in full Clipper vehicle development and operations.
Attending the 8th European Interparliamentary Space Conference at the Belgian Senate here June 12-13, de Winne said it is too early to estimate the likely cost of Clipper. If ESA agrees to the preparatory program, a full developmental effort would be presented to agency governments in 2008.
De Winne said the Russian Federal Space Agency, Roskosmos, has modified its requests for Clipper manufacturing bids to Russian industry to leave open the possibility of a substantial role for European companies.
Echoing earlier comments by ESA Director-General Jean-Jacques Dordain, de Winne said Europe would want a substantial Clipper role based on its experience in avionics, propulsion modules and other technologies.
“We want to be a major player in crew transport, capable of launching our own astronauts,” de Winne said. “We cannot achieve these goals if we were to take only, say, a 5-percent share in Clipper. We want to be one of the drivers in this.”
Clipper would be launched into low Earth orbit from either Russia’s Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan or Europe’s Guiana Space Center on the northeast coast of South America aboard a Russian-built Soyuz rocket. A Soyuz launch pad is being built in French Guiana by ESA, and the unmanned version of the rocket is schedule to make its first flight from that facility in late 2008.
A first mission of a Clipper prototype could be a visit to the international space station in 2012, de Winne said.
Clipper is the Russian equivalent to NASA’s planned Crew Exploration Vehicle. NASA has informed ESA that the U.S. program is not open for foreign participation.
Gennady I. Raykov, a member of Russia’s parliament, or Duma, and head of the Duma’s aviation and space committee, reiterated June 13 that Russia would welcome a partnership in Clipper.
The same cannot be said for the British government, which is not participating in ESA’s contribution to the international space station and in the 1980s declined to participate in Europe’s Ariane 5 rocket development because of Ariane 5’s early design links to an astronaut-launch capability.
Ian Taylor, a former British space minister who in the mid-1990s kept Britain out of the space station partnership, said here June 13 that his opinions on manned space flight have not changed.
Taylor applauded private-sector efforts at space tourism but said government programs that include astronauts are more expensive than they are worth. Taylor said young people today are more excited by robotic missions to Mars and other destinations than they are by launches to the space station.
Clipper, whose missions would include lunar and perhaps even Mars exploration, is likely to provide no reason for Britain to change its mind. “Lunar exploration is really best conducted by robots,” Taylor said. “There is really no reason to have man in the loop. As for Mars, robots could well provide 95 percent of what the astronauts can do, for 25 percent of the cost.”
Taylor’s remarks drew an immediate response from Christian Cabal, president of the French Parliamentary Space Group. Cabal said the United States and Russia both know the cost of manned spaceflight and continue doing it because of its value.
“The United Kingdom has always been against all advances in Europe’s space effort,” Cabal said. “They have always been a drag on the program. Here again they are making an error. Europe needs to be present in all the grand debates in the world, whether the subject is finance, or defense or exploration. There is no reason to oppose robots and astronauts. We should promote both.”
Cabal said space tourism has little to do with exploration, and that it is “incoherent to promote these ersatz flights, which are no more than high jumps like what was done in the Mercury era of spaceflight. I regret that England, such a grand explorer in the 19th and 20th centuries, is absent in the 21st.”