TCS Daily

In Your Face Space Race

By Matthew Elliott - May 27, 2003 12:00 AM

"One small step for a European citizen, one giant leap for the United States of Europe," is the message that the European Commission would presumably like Euronews to broadcast if its vision of an enhanced European space program comes to pass. "We should be working towards an independent European manned space program," said Belgian astronaut Frank De Winne at a recent Commission press conference. "We cannot go on for another 40 or 50 years simply orbiting the earth. We have to set our sights farther, on the moon, on Mars."

For the past 30 years, European nations have operated a space program under the auspices of the European Space Agency. In this context, 'European' is not synonymous with 'European Union' because Norway and Switzerland contribute to the ESA whilst Greece and Luxembourg do not. The EAS has successfully developed a coherent European space program by mobilizing public and private resources and bringing together scientific expertise to develop major joint projects.

However, expansion from commercial ventures such as satellite launches to political visions of manned space travel to Mars requires money - public money. This is why the ESA is cooperating ever more closely with the EU - the mother of all white elephants - with a view to agreeing to a friendly takeover by the end of 2003. As Sigmar Wittig, chairman of the German Aerospace Centre, recently said, "Europe needs space activities and space activities need Europe, ergo European space activities require the European Union."

The EU's space program was conceived in 2000 when member state governments agreed to create a common space policy. 2003 will dictate the success or failure of the birth.

In January, the Commission, in cooperation with the ESA, published a Green Paper on 'European [Union] Space Policy'. This was followed in February with the inclusion of 'the discovery of space' as an objective of the Union in Article 3 of the draft European Constitution presented to the Convention by the Praesidium.

May saw the culmination of the Green Paper consultation process with a conference in London addressed by luminaries such as the British Minister for Science and Technology Lord Sainsbury, European Research Commissioner Philippe Busquin and ESA Director-General Antonio Rodotà. This process was reinforced by supportive European Council and European Parliament resolutions on 13 and 15 May respectively and an approving ESA ministerial conference at the end of May. So far, everything is on track for a successful takeover.

But why does the EU want a space program? The Green Paper provides various economic and political arguments. The economic arguments are largely based on the commercial applications of previous space exploration (e.g. non-stick frying pans) and the technological advances enabled by satellites (e.g. global television, the internet and 3G mobile phones). What the paper does not convincingly explain is why, if the economic benefits are so apparent, the commercial sector is unwilling to fund the type of space exploration envisaged. The answer to this question is, perhaps, that the real motive behind the Union's space program is political.

First of all, European leaders recognize that a successful space program could convince a skeptical public to support further integration. De Winne describes the political dimension of his work in these terms: "As European astronauts, we want to be examples of real Europeans ... Europeans who can work together as a team." Wittig sees the space program as part of the process of moving "European people towards becoming a joint identity" and the Commission's Green Paper includes a section on 'Using space to support the integration process.'

Second, a successful space program is essential for a comprehensive Common Foreign and Defense Policy and European Security and Defense Policy. The Council resolution specifically cites "the continuously increasing importance of cost-effective and affordable space technologies for ... the CFSP." The Green Paper stresses that "the Union should develop a satellite-based defense and security capability on an entirely European basis" and argues that "a space component supporting a rapid capability for decision making will contribute to a credible and effective CSFP."

Finally, a successful space program indicates superpower status. Gilles Savary, a member of the European Parliament and president of the assembly's Sky and Space Intergroup, believes that that space is "a political issue, insofar as it relates to the whole question of the European Union's role in the world and its capacity to be a leading power." This is why the program is really a space race Mk II. Just as the first space race between the US and the USSR was as much about political prowess as it was about technological achievement, the second space race between the US and the EU is also grounded in the Union's desire for superpower status.

From these political motives rears the ugly head of anti-Americanism. The Commission website barely acknowledges America's success in space, describing "To boldly go where no man has gone before" as a "politically incorrect" catchphrase symbolizing 'Hollywood's romantic vision of space 40 years ago.' Savary justifies the European satellite navigation program Galileo on the grounds that it will "end the domination of the American ground positioning system, GPS."

More seriously, the Green Paper criticizes the US for its role in international space projects, describing them as being "marked by a constant desire on the part of the Americans to be pre-eminent in space". "As a general rule," the paper continues, "NASA expects to remain in control." Is this really surprising considering that America devotes six times the public resources to space as all European countries put together?

The Commission is, however, keen to promote cooperation with Russia. De Winne describes the Russians as having "a long and successful history of manned space flight from which to draw experience" - without mentioning America's far more successful record. And, significantly, the paper concludes that "Politically, a deeper cooperation of Europe with Russia, in the framework of a closer partnership and either current or future instruments, may be of mutual interest."

If anti-Americanism is going to be the basis of the European space program, all I can say is: "Beam me up, Scotty".

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