European government officials expressed mixed views on how Europe should react to the U.S. space exploration policy, saying Europe did not want to fall into the same full-dependency trap that has occurred with respect to the international space station.

Several officials said Europe’s space budget for the next two or three years will be largely devoted to paying for ongoing programs, and that little room is available for any major new initiatives.

During a series of briefings here Sept. 21 organized by Prospace, a grouping of European space companies, government officials said a planned December conference of European space ministers will be incapable of producing a clear statement of where Europe wants to go in space.

Michel Courtois, director of the Estec space technology center in Noordwijk, Netherlands — the biggest installation operated by the 17-nation European Space Agency (ESA) — said ESA’s budget until 2008 is committed to maintaining already-approved programs.

In addition to its ongoing support for the Ariane 5 heavy-lift launcher program — ESA payments to reimburse industry’s fixed costs are guaranteed through 2009 — ESA is adding two new vehicles to its stable of rockets.

The Italian-led Vega small-satellite launcher and a modified version of Russia’s Soyuz rocket are both expected to begin operating from Europe’s Guiana Space Center in French Guiana in 2008.

“We need to find a compromise between what we invest in starting new programs, and what we pay to maintain programs already under way,” Courtois said. Investing in Soyuz and Vega, he said, “is not the best way to support European industry.”

ESA officials have estimated that 22 percent of the agency’s budget between 2006 and 2010 will be directed toward maintenance and operations of the Ariane 5, Soyuz and Vega rockets.

This figure has led some industry officials to suggest that ESA has become a prisoner of ongoing programs that are sapping the agency’s ability to perform its core mission of research and development.

Marc Pircher, chief technical officer of Alcatel Alenia Space, one of Europe’s two big satellite prime contractors, said operational companies created by governments, such as the Arianespace commercial launch consortium, should be better able to survive on revenues from their customers. “If we must continue to maintain these companies — not just Ariane — then money will be in short supply,” Pircher said.

Courtois responded that “it would be nice if these companies could survive on their cash flow. But it doesn’t work like that.”

Increasing ESA’s science budget to include space exploration efforts will be perhaps the highest priority of the agency at the December ministerial meeting, Courtois said.

A robotic Mars mission called ExoMars is under study, and small-scale robotic missions to the Moon also might be considered as part of a broader international effort including NASA’s program, Courtois said.

What has to be avoided, he said, is a situation in which Europe is completely dependent on the United States in space exploration.

Courtois listed Europe’s components built for the international space station and raised the possibility that “all or some of them will remain on the ground.” Europe depends on the U.S. space shuttle to lift its Columbus habitable laboratory to the station, and regular space shuttle flights including European astronauts had been assumed when European governments made their station investments.

How many station-assembly flights the shuttle will conduct before it is retired in 2010, and what gear will be on board, is unknown.

Christian Cabal, president of the French Parliamentary Space Group, said the international space station should be a lesson to Europeans thinking of joining the U.S. exploration program, which features lunar bases and, eventually, manned flights to Mars.

Cabal said it was “extremely sad” to see Europe’s expensive space station hardware sitting in storage waiting for a shuttle flight that may never arrive. But he also said Europe is not ready to abandon the international space station.

“We have to take a wait-and-see position even though that is unsatisfactory,” Cabal said, adding that he is wary of a U.S.-designed Moon-and-Mars exploration program that leaves no place for substantive international participation.

“The place left for cooperation with other nations in this program — well, I’m still looking for it,” Cabal said. “I suppose that France will be asked to take responsibility for preparing the cuisine at the future lunar base, and Italy’s contribution will be to play mandolin at the base. As I read the policy, there are about four lines devoted to international cooperation, and the message is: International participation is welcome, except for the essential items.”

Peter B. de Selding was the Paris bureau chief for SpaceNews.