3 December 2008—Take a stroll down Milan’s Via Dante, which connects its famous cathedral with an old castle and park, and you’ll see a splendid series of illuminated posters illustrating space exploration, with catchy titles like ”Naked Venus,” ”Gold Digging in the Universe,” and ”A Star Is Born.” Log on to the science or technology home page of a major European newspaper like France’s Le Figaro or Germany’s Süddeutsche Zeitung , and you’ll find the top stories are about Mars’ subterranean glaciers, its newly discovered snowstorms, and the first close observations of its auroras. All that testifies to the high level of public interest in space exploration.
But there’s a contradiction that became apparent last week when Europe’s space ministers met in the Netherlands to set policy for the next three years. Europeans love to hear about how they’re contributing to the expansion of space-science frontiers, but they don’t particularly want to pay the bills. So it may have been disappointing, but it was not exactly a surprise when Europe’s space ministers basically stalled on the weightiest issues.
In the months leading up to the ministerial meeting, what most engaged space buffs was the question of whether Europe would decide to develop its own capacity to lift astronauts to the space station and beyond. During the last decade, Europe has had to rely on either the United States or Russia, which must be compensated with cash or services. What’s more, U.S. shuttle flights have been irregular and infrequent, and reliance on Russia’s aging Soyuz has made for some excessively exciting reentries. Especially in light of the shuttle’s impending retirement, which will leave the United States without the ability to launch crews for several years, you’d think that Europe would be eager to step in to fill the gap.
The trouble is, that costs money, and quite a lot. ”To be autonomous in lower orbit [that is, to be able to hoist humans to space stations and get them back safely] would cost 15 billion [US $19 billion],” Italian Space Agency commissioner Enrico Saggese estimated, in a conversation at a space conference in Glasgow in late October. ”To have a man on the moon means 50 billion,” he continued. ”To have a man on Mars means 500 billion.”
Seeking a cost-effective approach, Europe has been agonizing over whether to jointly develop a new launch system with Russia or to go it alone by developing a crew launch-and-return system from the Jules Verne cargo vehicle that it successfully inaugurated earlier this year. The deliberations became heated and high paced, especially after the hostilities between Russia and Georgia last summer. Russia’s space leaders are well regarded in Europe, and they are considered highly reliable partners. But for obvious reasons, the larger political environment has looked increasingly unpropitious. Inside Russia, the joint program also proved to be controversial.
As recently as May, Cristian Bank, the leader of crew transport at EADS Astrium’s branch in Bremen, Germany, considered the odds good that the European Space Agency (ESA) would jointly develop a crew transport vehicle with Russia. In Glasgow, Bank still seemed to think that was likely, despite the situation in Georgia, and even though German industrial interests argued in favor of an EU-only approach for Europe. Bank noted that the idea of jointly developing a winged shuttle based on Russia’s Kliper concept was dropped last year upon determining that a fully reusable system would pay for itself only if it flew six times a year or more. The focus now was on a more modest vehicle called a Crew Space Transport System.