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Is Europe in the space race?

There are a surprising number of European countries with space programmes, especially if compared to the days of the cold war when the US and USSR led the race. Germany (DLR), France (CNES), the Netherlands (SRON), Norway (NSC), and Sweden (SNSB) all have current projects underway, as well as the umbrella pan-European organisation, ESA, which has 18 member states and six cooperating states, which includes, interestingly, Canada.

The UK has UKSA, which is a newly formed body. The European Space Agency (ESA), was formed in 1975 with an initial membership of ten states, and has its headquarters in Paris, and secondary sites in Germany, Spain, Italy and the Netherlands.

Though ESA is relatively small compared to NASA (the former having a budget of US$4.8 billion , while the latter enjoys funding to the tune of US$17.6 billion) it has undertaken a surprising number of space programmes. Though sadly the Hermes manned programme was abandoned in 1992, and European space travellers must currently hitch a ride on American or Russian missions, there are fresh plans for a new mission to send “spationauts” (European astronauts) to space in 2020 in a Advanced Re-Entry Vehicle. The project is still in the conceptual stages and the first uses of the vehicle will be for unmanned cargo missions, but it’s a promising start.

In our increasingly connected world, it should come as no surprise that ESA and NASA have joined forces. In 2009, they formed the Mars Exploration Joint Initiative to allow the two agencies to cooperate on current and future Mars missions in order to “expand their collective abilities”. Missions undertaken by this collaboration include the European ExoMars and American Mars Science Laboratory robotic lander missions. Working together should help avoid situations like the Beagle II lander, with which contact was lost just after it separated from the Mars Express Orbiter in 2003.

Open minds make for good space scientists

Current Director of Science and Robotic Exploration at ESA, Professor David Southwood, spoke to the Euroscientist about his experiences of working in space science in Europe.

Though he had neither physics O level nor A level, through the support of his mother and a “very perceptive” maths teacher, Southwood was able to pick up A level maths. He believes “an open mind and a willingness to learn” is the most important aspects any aspiring space scientist must have. He got his first position at ESA after working on both Earth and space sciences at Imperial College London. Upon returning to ESA in 2001, the agency maintained its strong scientific focus, which Southwood says is based on the needs of those outside the agency. “There is little point sending a probe to a planet no one is looking for data on,” he said.

Space science vs. Space flight

This strong focus on science has been part of the agency since its inception, with an emphasis on the space sciences rather than manned flight like the NASA and Soviet programmes. However, ESA is now in a strong position to under take manned flights. It has a wide range of vehicles: the heavy payload Ariane 5, which took over from the Ariane 4 in 1997; the medium payload Soyuz-ST rocket which was developed in a €340 million joint venture with the Russian Federal Space Agency and is a descendant of the Soyuz rocket (workhorse of Russian spaceflight since the 1950s), and the light payload Vega, which is due for its first flight this year, or in early 2011.

ESA and the other European space programmes are at an exciting crossroads. President Obama wants NASA to achieve manned orbits of Mars by the 2030s. China has joined the US and Russia as countries that have sent people to space. ESA are in a prime position to aid these programmes, and start their own, based on the experience of the space community as a whole.

Europe has a long history of involvement with space sciences and exploration. The first man in space, Yuri Gagarin, was technically European. The first ESA astronaut, Ulf Merbold, flew in 1983. With ESA and the other European space agencies, Europe continues to take a front line place in space research, manned or otherwise.

Featured image credit: iurii via Shutterstock

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