PARIS — The European Space Agency on Jan. 7 issued a video describing, over eight minutes, the multiple arguments for lunar exploration and saying flatly: “Our next destination on this [space exploration] journey is the Moon.”
But for now, Europe’s lunar exploration plan remains decidedly one of “all hat, no cattle,” as ESA’s national governments remain silent in the face of the enthusiastic backing of ESA Director-General Johann-Dietrich Woerner of an international lunar exploration effort.
It’s not the first time Woerner has sought to stir interest in a lunar mission. Before arriving at ESA last July, he was executive chairman of the German Aerospace Center, DLR.
DLR in 2007 had tentatively approved what began as a German-only lunar mission focusing on robotic lunar resource exploitation. At some 500 million euros ($600 million then), it proved to large a commitment for DLR alone.
Germany proposed it to ESA governments hoping that a November 2012 conference of European space ministers would carry the project forward. So weak was the response – ESA governments preferred to focus on the ExoMars missions – that the idea was scrapped even before the conference started.
There is another ESA ministerial planned next December, and some ESA officials would like to prepare a lunar exploration program starting with small robots and ultimately including Russian or Chinese or Indian participation if the United States proves focused on Mars.
An ESA director-general has the ability to move forward projects that are stalled, and to orient national member government budgets in a way that promotes the ESA brand and responds to national government priorities.
For some smaller missions, ESA has limited its role to one of coordinating the investments of a few governments, and acting as technical adviser. But in all these cases ESA needed at least one government to lead the endeavor — preferably a large contributor such as France, Germany, Italy or Britain.
No such champion has yet emerged for the lunar project, and indications from Germany are that its financial maneuvering space for new space efforts will not be large in 2016.
There is also the pressure of the billion-euro ExoMars mission, now managed as a joint project with Russia, whose space budget may or may not be devastated by government budget cuts in the face of the collapse of global oil prices.
ExoMars 2016 is scheduled for launch in March. The European Mars rover is part of the ExoMars 2018 mission, whose financing has not been fully secured.
Woerner made his most impassioned public lunar exploration argument in October at the International Astronautical Congress in Jerusalem, where many ESA national space agency chiefs were present.
Judging from remarks made Jan. 4 by Jean-Yves Le Gall, president of the French space agency, CNES — ESA’s biggest contributor along with Germany — the idea has yet to catch fire.
“The ESA director-general made a presentation in Jerusalem that was remarked on because it was remarkable,” Le Gall said, using a French phrase often employed to signify agitations of no consequence.
“Jan Woerner considers it part of his job to put out ideas even when these ideas have not necessarily been discussed with his member states,” Le Gall said. “This is not a bad thing, to have a kind of idea factory. I don’t know if his Moon Village will be adopted — there are lots of ideas being kicked around on multiple subjects. But it’s good to have an open debate.
“The Moon is certainly easier than Mars — that’s a fact. There’s no launch window and it’s less expensive,” Le Gall said. “It’s also clear there is less scientific interest in it.”
Woerner’s Moon Village has received at least one favorable reaction, from an unlikely source: The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration’s Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee, which in December unanimously agreed to open talks with ESA on how U.S. companies might participate.
ESA’s Jan. 7 video is titled, “The Moon Awakens.” European governments so far appear to have hit the snooze button.