Space Exploration – The Positive Outcome of the ESA Council

by

After months of worry that nothing would come of it, the ESA Ministerial Council meeting held in Berlin Dec. 5-6 ended up being a success for European space.

This is most obvious for the launch industry and space imagery producers: an important agreement was reached on giving preference to European launchers when launching ESA-funded satellites; a higher budget than planned was adopted for the GMES Earth Observation program.

Things also turned out for the best in the complex and difficult area of space exploration, where the many obstacles to a satisfying council outcome were overcome.

When considering space exploration, the first obstacle in Europe is of course money. With an overall budget of $3 billion a year, the agency has indeed tough choices to make. Programs that are of concrete use to society, such as observation, navigation, access to space or technology development, stand a better chance than programs that have a less direct impact on the European citizen, such as exploring the universe or sending crews to orbit.

A second element in the debate is the cooperation with the United States. With its $16 billion budget and its position as the world’s first space agency, NASA is the first partner of the European space community. Most of Europe’s exploration programs include an element of cooperation with NASA. But the lack of motivation to cooperate on both sides of the Atlantic was particularly acute this year.

On the “older” side of the Atlantic, there is a good deal of frustration regarding the way the international space station (ISS) program has been managed by the U.S. space agency. The growing delays and cost overruns were a first concern. Limited consultation of the non-American partners when NASA made down-sizing decisions was probably even more irritating.

Today, Germans remain worried the Columbus in-orbit laboratory (to which they contributed up to 40 percent) will not be actually launched and attached to the ISS. Even if it is, the decision as to how long the ISS will remain in service and how long the different units will be in use does not rest with Europeans.

Similar worries plague the Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) program. Launched atop an Ariane 5, the future European Cargo vehicle is supposed to start servicing the ISS in 2007. But how many times will it be flown to the station? Will there be a way of using the ATV in the framework of a future NASA-led exploration program? Again, these decisions are not entirely our own.

Unfortunately, it seems rather unrealistic to expect that cooperation will improve in the framework of the next NASA program.

Proposals from NASA to participate in its “Vision for Space Exploration” are not really significant at this point. A program that consists of a return to the Moon by 2020 and the continuation to Mars around 2035 resembles and refers to the Apollo mission. International cooperation was not an element of the 1960s Moon program and neither does it seem to be key to today’s program.

Indeed, NASA Administrator Michael Griffin does not appear to be a dedicated proponent of cooperation. When he presented the Exploration plan in September, he briefed the media before meeting with the international partners of NASA.

The ESA Council took stock of U.S. attitudes. It made cautious decisions regarding continuing participation in the ISS. Enough money is granted to make the scheduled participation possible, while making later changes also remains possible. The question of ESA participation to the exploration program also remains open.

When Europeans decided to terminate the Hermes shuttle program in 1992, this signaled the end of European ambitions to fly solo, at least for the time being. ESA created a European corps of astronauts, in 1998, but its members depend on U.S. or Russian manned missions to accomplish their dream.

European astronauts do indeed wish to be associated with the next NASA program: — when humans step on the Moon again, can Europeans afford not to be part of it? Europeans also have held discussions with Russia, exploring possible participation to the Russian Clipper shuttle program, which is slated to fly sometime next decade, But the Berlin Council postponed decisions on these issues.

Maybe this pause is a very good thing. For, at the end of the day, manned missions do not have the same meaning on each side of the Atlantic.

To quote Professor John Logsdon, manned missions to space have become a “cultural heritage” in America. It is unthinkable to let go of that prestige symbol from the 1960s, especially when countries like China now fly their own manned missions.

Beyond this, manned exploration also appeals to a very powerful image in the American psyche, that of the pioneer. When 19th century pioneers went to chart and appropriate new territories in the western United States , they did not send machines or robots. They went themselves, taking huge personal and physical risks. Exploration of the universe by the United States today must obey the same pattern. A real space explorer is a man or a woman who goes, sees and bears witness on his or her return. In that respect, it is safe to say that, in the American mind, Mars will not have truly been explored until human beings have actually set foot on the planet.

Over here in Europe, manned space also is prestigious, but it is not loaded with the same historical reference. The purpose of space exploration in Europe is rather to advance science and knowledge about the universe, regardless of the type of mission. This is why the best decision of the council regarding space exploration probably was the adoption of the ExoMars program. Launched in 2011, ExoMars will study the biology of the red planet. Other missions belonging to the Aurora overall exploration plan, such as the Mars sample return mission, have received initial support.

Such missions are the most appealing to European minds because they are the most likely to advance our understanding of the solar system. To send crews later on remains of course an exciting prospect, but one that seems less necessary, almost a perk.

ESA has focused its exploration program on goals that it can reach more independently and that appeal most to European minds. It has postponed the more debated and risky decisions. For those reasons, the 2005 ESA Council is a good vintage.

Laurence Nardon, Ph.D, is a research fellow with the French Center on the United States at the French Institute of International Relations.