PARIS — Italy’s decision to stake out a leading role for itself in Europe’s emerging space exploration program could be the catalyst Germany needs to boost its own investment in the field, according to Walter Doellinger, head of space programs at the German Aerospace Center, DLR.

The prospect of Italy leading Europe’s program to explore the Moon and Mars over the next two decades would be difficult to accept in Germany, which has long been second only to France in Europe’s space-spending hierarchy. On some European programs, including the international space station, Germany is Europe’s biggest financial contributor.

“Politicians now are beginning to realize that Italy is attacking our position” in a bid for space-program leadership, Doellinger said in a Nov. 22 interview following a two-day conference in Dresden on German space exploration plans.

The conference, organized by DLR Nov. 21-22, drew about 140 scientists from numerous disciplines and confirmed their preference for an immediate focus on lunar exploration as opposed to Mars, Doellinger said.

DLR is trying to decide whether to attempt to use a portion of the German multi-year research budget for its own lunar exploration mission — an orbiter or, perhaps, a lander to identify future landing sites for astronauts.

Up to now, Germany has not made a large commitment to the European Space Agency (ESA) exploration program, whose showcase element is the ExoMars lander scheduled for launch in 2013. Germany has an 11 percent share of the overall ESA exploration program, which is planned at 812 million euros ($1 billion) through 2013, while it contributes about 20 percent of ESA’s overall budget.

German government officials in the past have said their reluctance to commit to a space exploration program is in part due to the space station. German budget obligations to the station, including a mandatory share of its annual operating costs, will continue for an undetermined number of years but at least through the end of this decade.

Privately, German space-agency managers have expressed concerns that the United States would wash its hands of the station after 2010, when the U.S. space shuttle is scheduled to be retired. If that occurs, there will be a temptation among some European nations to focus their limited budgets on lunar or Mars exploration rather than a continued maintenance of the space station.

Europe is relying on the shuttle to lift the European Columbus habitable module, built by a German prime contractor, in late 2007.

Cautioning that he was speaking only for himself, and not DLR, Doellinger said he doubts whether the space station, whose construction is not yet completed, will be in full service for another 15 years.

“Maybe I’m wrong, but I don’t see 15 years,” Doellinger said. “And at the very least we need to consider the possibility that there’s no way of us getting to the station after 2010 unless we want to pay the Russians ever-higher fees to get us there.”

ESA and the Russian space agency, Roskosmos, have begun a two-year program to study potential collaboration on a future Advanced Crew Transportation System, a manned vehicle that would service the space station and, perhaps, a lunar colony.

Doellinger said Germany has not yet decided whether a major development program on a Euro-Russian vehicle — with Russia in the lead role — is a good idea.

“Keeping our independence is important, especially after the Spacelab and space station,” Doellinger said, referring to the German-built Spacelab habitable laboratory launched aboard the U.S. space shuttle. Spacelab was retired after far fewer flights than had been expected when the program originally was approved.

German officials and government space authorities generally in Europe are concerned that they as yet have no answer to the challenge posed by NASA’s exploration program, nor by the U.S. Defense Department’s development of multiple technologies for use in low Earth orbit. Doellinger said Europe’s military space effort, like its exploration policy, will be slow to develop.

DLR, like the space agencies in France and Italy, is moving toward closer relations to the German military as military leaders discover the strategic benefits of space, Doellinger said.

Germany’s TerraSAR-X and TanDem-X radar satellites, both financed by DLR with private-sector involvement and intended for commercial and research use, have attracted the interest of German military authorities for such purposes as ground moving target identification.

“We are really just starting our own efforts in Europe, and in Germany DLR is moving to get closer to the Bundeswehr,” Doellinger said. “But this takes time. So we have to react both to NASA’s exploration initiative, and to the U.S. Air Force.”