Europe Punts on Human Space Exploration

Excitement in Europe is high, but spending is low. Leaders still can't decide how aggressively to push for crew launch capabilities or a major Mars mission

4 min read

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.

But only a week later, ESA’s Marco Caporicci, the main person responsible for planning future transport, expressed many technical reservations. Chatting after normal working hours at ESTEC, ESA’s major R&D and mission-management facility in Noordwijk, Netherlands, Caporicci said that serious logistical problems arise from Russia’s recent decision to move its major launch facility, Kazakhstan to a new site in Siberia (at an estimated cost of $17 billion). Besides the intrinsic inconvenience of Vostochny’s distance from Europe, any new Russian heavy launcher must be transportable to Siberia by train, which will limit the launcher’s diameter. That implies the launchers will be too slender to accommodate the type of crew vehicle Europe is currently most interested in developing.

Caporicci indicated that the question of whether to cooperate with Russia would likely be deferred to the next ESA ministerial meeting, though a meeting could be called before the usual three years are up. He conceded that aside from the technical concerns, political considerations also argued for waiting. ”It’s not just Georgia,” he said, alluding to the assassination of a dissident in London two years ago and, just before that, ”the murder in Russia of the lady journalist” Anna Politkovskaya.

It was clear from that conversation which way the wind was blowing, but even so, last week’s decisions—or nondecisions—were a bit of a letdown. Not only did the ministers decide not to decide whether to inaugurate a joint program with Russia, they didn’t even decide to proceed immediately with development of a reusable cargo vehicle, which could be an intermediate step in the direction of a European astronaut launch capability. They only appropriated funds to study the option. Even under the most optimistic scenario, Europe would not acquire the capability to return cargo from space until 2017 and to fly humans until 2020.

As for ExoMars, Europe’s next major Mars project, the ministers also, in effect, stalled. Faced with cost estimates that have gone from 600 million to 1.2 billion as the number of proposed instruments has proliferated, the ministers representing ESA’s 18 member states increased the mission’s appropriation to 850 million and told the project’s managers to find new international partners to fund the rest. That leaves the fate of ExoMars—a really exciting mission that would involve landing a high-speed rover with equipment to drill for evidence of life—hanging in the balance. Its anticipated launch date already has slipped into late in the next decade.

The ESA ministers did increase space spending over the next three-year period by 20 percent, despite general economic conditions. But as the executive president of EADS Astrium told the French press, that still leaves Europe hiking its annual space expenditures by just 7 percent per year, while China and the United States are boosting their spending by 12 percent per annum and India by 20 percent.

Considering that Europe is the economic equal of the United States, and by most measures technically far ahead of countries like India, China, and Russia, its dilatoriness raises obvious questions. ”Even if Europe is a leader in Earth observation and telecommunications,” asked Le Figaro , ”can it stay in the game if it’s not able by its own means to put humans into space?”

Additional reporting by Anatoly Zak

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