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ESA Mars base illustration
ESA has shown some interest in human exploration beyond Earth; what role—if any—should they play in a US-led program? (credit: ESA)

The European (French) response to Bush’s space strategy

The initial response of the French chattering classes to the news that the Americans were headed back to the Moon and then to Mars was bon debarras, “good riddance.” Once they realized that most of the US population was not going to move off the planet, their enthusiasm for the project was somewhat diminished. In any event, the head of the European Space Agency (ESA), Jean-Jacques Dordain, said that he “dreamed of the day when the President of Europe would come to ESA headquarters and make a similar policy declaration.”

Dordain used the French word “politique” which has the dual meaning of “politics” and “policy,” but is usually used to indicate the later. Bush’s new strategy is, indeed, the basis on which NASA will establish its long-term policy or at least until another President or Congress decides to change it. US policy will definitely include a role for other nations and for their space agencies. The question is: how will their efforts fit into the overall scheme?

International commitments to big, ambitious projects are easy to make, in principal, but negotiating the details is tough, and keeping to the agreements in the face of difficulties and disasters, the hard part. The agreements that created the ISS are a good example. For the most part, they were entered into in good faith and, over time, the partners have made Herculean efforts to keep to them. However, the one lesson the US learned from the ISS experience is never to allow another nation to dominate the “critical path” the way Russia dominates the ISS.

The best thing the Europeans have to offer is their know-how in keeping all the members of multinational projects relatively content.

No one in Europe doubts that the US will pay most of the cost of getting people back to the Moon and, eventually, to Mars. The Europeans, like most potential international partners, are asking themselves three questions: Can we help? Do we want to help? and, What do we get out of it? Of course, it is this last question that is by far the most important.

Can the Europeans help? The heavy lift version of the Ariane 5 is a launcher that might be useful, but since the US is looking to fly as many payloads as possible on the EELVs (Atlas 5 and Delta 4) there is no need to use it. There would also be the added costs of building a special ground infrastructure in Kourou to handle the CEV and/or its modules. Offering to provide free launch services is an old trick used by the French and others to involve themselves in international space programs while enhancing the commercial competitiveness of their respective industries.

In certain areas, the Europeans, and here we are mostly talking about the French, have expertise that might be of some help, primarily in the communications area. The truly valuable European expertise is in the coordination and operation of multinational, hi-tech projects. Europe’s experience with projects like Concorde, the Tornado and the Eurofighter Typhoon show that, while they do get done, they end up being far more expensive and time consuming than most single-nation projects, even though those can be almost as bad. The best thing the Europeans have to offer is their know-how in keeping all the members of such projects relatively content.

Unlike the Russians, who would bring experience and robust expertise to any human exploration project, the Europeans, with the notable exception of the Italians, bring little, other than a few bits and pieces which could either be built in the US, or procured commercially for much less than the price ESA will probably pay. Like the US, the Europeans have a dependent aerospace industry to feed and, like the US, they are willing to occasionally overpay for certain items in order to keep the wheels turning.

The principal of “no exchange of funds” on which US international space cooperation has been built leads to some interesting political and budgetary contortions. For example, the Europeans are actually paying the Russians to keep the Soyuz capsules flying to the ISS. In this way, the US does not have to break its laws against supporting entities the US considers responsible for contributing to the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, or long range missiles that break the Missile Technology Control Regime. Instead, the Europeans are the ones supporting those entities. This case merely illustrates that the US would rather indirectly break its own nonproliferation rules rather than throw away the whole ISS program.

Some Europeans see America’s effort to explore the solar system as a form of space imperialism.

This will be an increasing problem for the US as it attempts to formulate a policy for involving international partners. The nature of the space industry is such that, if the US were to allow foreign governments and firms to get a foothold inside the exploration program similar to the one the Russians have inside the ISS, they would be effectively be forfeiting the possibility of sanctioning those governments and firms. The US has a pretty weak hand when it comes to trying to stop the spread of dangerous weapons and technologies using sanctions. International cooperation in projects like the ISS weakens it even more.

The fact that the French and Germans are anxious to resume large scale sales of weapons to China, without regard to the consequences for US security, should be a factor in determining whether to invite them to participate in any long-term exploration program. Another factor the US should take into account is their hostility towards what they see as America’s long-term goals in space.

Writing in Le Monde on January 22, Michael Alberganti takes President Bush’s reference to the Lewis and Clark expedition and asks if the US now considers the moon in the same category as the Louisiana Territory, that is, American soil. Of course, he recognizes that the US renounced any sovereign claims to the moon or to other celestial bodies in the 1967 outer space treaty. Even so, he suspects that the US is off on an adventure leading to “La Conquete de L’espace”. The term is current in France while, over in the US, it has not been seriously used in decades. They see America’s effort to explore the solar system as a form of space imperialism.

While the US has never had an explicit policy of space colonization, it is reasonable to assume that Bush’s strategy leads in that direction. Opposition to these US ambitions from Europe’s Socialists and Greens should be expected. Rene Schaad, a Swiss scientist, is quoted in Paula Berinstein’s book Making Space Happen as follows: “The Frontier does not have a good reputation in Europe… So when you talk about people conquering Mars or use a word like ‘Frontier,’ people form images of Palestine, or the Old West, with slaughtered Indians and buffalos.” This is the usual stereotype.

It would be far better for the US to forget about seriously cooperating with the Europeans. The overwhelming majority rejects the dreams that so many Americans have of a new, spacefaring civilization. Large-scale, long-term, difficult and very expensive projects are best accomplished by cooperating with trusted friends and allies. While there are many nations in Europe that fit this description, the ones that dominate ESA do not.