PRAGUE, Czech Republic — Representatives from most of the 27 member governments of the European Union (EU) on Oct. 23 expressed support for a major, if still undefined, financial investment in space exploration alongside the European Space Agency () but conceded it will take a year before they are ready to set firm budget and policy goals.
Meeting here as part of the EU-ESA International Conference on Human Space Exploration, they said that by late 2010 they should be able to make initial decisions on a space exploration roadmap that includes robotic and manned missions in collaboration with the United States, Russia, Japan and other nations including China and India.
They also acknowledged that the United States, which they view as the natural coordinator of a major exploration initiative, will need the next 12 months to align U.S. space exploration objectives with NASA’s likely budget.
European Commission Vice President Guenter Verheugen, who has been a major force in putting space on the agenda of the commission, urged European governments to view space exploration as something more than a source of new technologies or other practical spinoffs.
“Space exploration is not just to find another Teflon pan,” Verheugen said, referring to one of the many products that are said to have been made possible by the U.S. manned space program. “There are a lot cheaper ways of finding more Teflon pots than going to the Moon and Mars. Exploration is to open the minds of European citizens without having to answer the question: How useful will it be? I mean, how useful is it to learn about the origins of the universe?”
Verheugen’s term at the European Commission is scheduled to end late this year, which is one reason why the governments meeting here steered clear of fixing any specific policy milestones.
“If we came up with a detailed plan for exploration, Verheugen’s successor could have tossed it aside as belonging to a previous administration,” one European government official said. “This meeting was not about specific proposals. It was about making a statement that the European Union intends to be a key player in space exploration.”
Because nothing specific was on the table for discussion, the conference here, which officials said was unusually difficult to organize, featured almost no debate over the Moon versus Mars as a principal focus, or about whether the European Commission’s contract rules should replace those of ESA. ESA distributes contracts in strict proportion to the contribution of each of its 18 member governments, while the commission picks winners irrespective of their government’s weight in a given program.
Statements made by the commission and numerous government representatives highlighted concern that Europe is at risk of losing its place in the front rank of spacefaring nations as China, India and others accelerate their national space programs.
The European Commission organizers of the meeting invited representatives of NASA, the Indian Space Research Organisation, Russia’s Roskosmos space agency, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency and Israel’s space agency to highlight the fact that Europe wants the next period of space exploration to be a fully international effort.
But even Verheugen could not avoid voicing two motivations for space travel that could be seen as contradictory.
“Space exploration has never been driven by human curiosity alone,” Verheugen said. “It is a symbol of global power and prestige. Other countries are rising to the challenge. Europe should not remain sidelined in this process.”
But later in the same speech, he said: “We should make sure there will be no race to the Moon or a race to Mars, but an endeavor of all mankind.” He said Europe is a natural mediator that could bring together space powers that otherwise might find it hard to work together.
The European Commission today spends less than 1 billion euros ($1.5 billion) per year on space projects. In the seven-year budget period that begins in 2014, commission officials hope to increase that to around 3 billion euros per year.
“If we present a space program with a long list of relatively modest endeavors like, say, space-based monitoring of fishing, we will never attract the kind of support we need to triple the space budget at the commission,” a government representative from one of the commission’s larger members said. “But if you can point in the direction of a manned presence on the Moon or Mars, preceded by a Mars sample return, you can appeal to people in a way that can bring you that kind of budget. That is what we have started to do with this conference.”