The European Space Agency (ESA) is trapped between European scientists’ apparent lack of interest in Moon-based science and the proliferation of lunar-exploration missions among the world’s other space powers, and even in some individual ESA nations, ESA Director-General Jean-Jacques Dordain said.

In a Jan. 14 press briefing on the agency’s current priorities, Dordain said the agency’s mid-2007 call for proposals to scientists for missions between 2015 and 2025 elicited a record number of responses – 70 in total

– with eight selected for further study.

“We asked, ‘What is your wildest dream?’”

Dordain said. “Proposals came back for Saturn, Jupiter and for missions to places I had never heard of. But as for scientific interest in the

Moon, I did not detect any.”

cautioned that scientific merit is not the only gauge to measure the value of a space program. He said none of the 70 proposals called for a second-generation international space station either, but ESA nonetheless attaches a high priority to using its Columbus laboratory, set for launch to the station in February aboard a U.S. space shuttle.

As is the case with the space station, he said, lunar exploration could be viewed as a proving ground for future Mars sample return missions, or as a multinational exploration effort, ultimately involving astronauts. The political and technology-development values would more than compensate for the lack of scientists’ enthusiasm, he said. “I don’t want us to be all alone” as the only major space power bypassing the

Moon, Dordain said, evoking lunar initiatives under way in the United States, China, Japan, India – and proposals made at the German and Italian space agencies.

made those comments

in the context of his discussion about a planned conference of ESA government ministers scheduled for November in The Hague – an event that occurs once every three years or so and is designed to set the agency’s long-term direction and budget.

ESA is weighing whether, and how, to join NASA in a broad exploration program that would include lunar and Mars exploration, and

also is planning Mars missions of its own.

The agency also is weighing whether to develop its own ability to launch astronauts into orbit – a capacity that the United States, Russia and China have, and that India is developing. How the

Moon fits into this program remains to be decided.

Also yet to be determined is whether ESA and Russia have the interest and financial resources to jointly build a crew-transport vehicle so that whatever international space-exploration program develops will not rely on NASA’s Orion vehicle, now in development.

A European crew-transport vehicle also would help guarantee the agency access to the international space station after 2015, when NASA has suggested it might no longer participate in the orbital complex.

ESA will have spent some 9 billion euros ($13 billion) on the station by 2015 – the equivalent to three times the agency’s total annual budget. Dordain

repeatedly has expressed frustration that even before the European and Japanese habitable modules are launched, NASA has begun shifting its focus elsewhere.

Making the fullest possible use of the station is an early ESA priority and a station-utilization budget will be proposed at November’s ministerial meeting.

“If we start talking about the ‘end’ of the space station before we even start using it, this is not the best way to attract scientific interest,” Dordain said, adding that he discussed this issue with NASA Administrator Michael Griffin, as well as with the heads of the German and Italian space agencies, in December in Florida during the ultimately cancel

ed attempt to launch the Columbus laboratory.

A meeting of the heads of the space agencies taking part in the station – United States, Russia, Japan and Canada – is scheduled for May and may result in a common understanding of how long the station will remain in service. “We will try to decide collectively, not unilaterally, on a calendar for the end” of the station, Dordain said. “Having a common approach would represent progress.”