French revolution

Rumours over a proposed European rival to the US space shuttle were given fresh life this week with the news that the French government plans to use its presidency of the EU to kickstart a European space revolution.

While the European Space Agency (ESA) has traditionally maintained an almost entirely scientific approach to space exploration, the French president – Nicholas Sarkozy – is calling for a more politically motivated space policy, that will send Europeans to the moon and beyond and enable us to remain one step ahead of the burgeoning space programmes in Japan, China and India. In short, he wants ESA to become more like NASA.

The Engineer would be the last to argue against increased European funding for space science. Here in the UK, where the space industry contributes around £7bn a year to the economy, there are many research groups and companies that will benefit from increased investment.

However, we would also suggest that attempting to emulate NASA might not be the most sensible move. For a start NASA spends eight times more on space development than ESA, so Europe would need to allocate huge additional resources to get up to this level. The fact that ESA is run by 17 EU member-states could also end up hampering its ability to display the political agility necessary to compete with the NASA’s of this world. And there is also the possibility that, given the recent history of frosty Franco-American relations, aping the US could backfire as a political gesture.

Increased investment in space is very welcome. But rather than becoming a smaller, less effective version of NASA, ESA should continue to play to its strengths – for instance its expertise in cost effective science, and earth observation – as well as look at the many areas of space technology where NASA isn’t particularly active.

Finally, while Sarkozy is right to point to the many great advances in space technology that have been politically motivated, there is a flip side. While Sputnik, the lunar landings, and the many technological leaps achieved during the cold war were politically driven so was Margaret Thatcher’s decision to pull Britain out of Europe’s manned space program in the late 1980s. If Europe’s space aspirations are aligned too closely with political ambitions, there’s a risk it could turn its back on the scientific motivation that has underpinned ESA’s fruitful 33 year existence.

Jon Excell, features editor