What's Holding Up Europe's Countdown

Imagine what it does to national pride to spend decades watching the U. S. and the Soviet Union fire manned rockets into space while your own government sits on the sidelines. Tired of being also-rans, the 13 nations of the European Space Agency (ESA) decided in 1987 to spend $14 billion to build a manned space shuttle, dubbed Hermes, as well as a powerful new Ariane 5 rocket, and a trio of orbiting laboratories. Europe's goal was to send its astronauts into space by the turn of the century.

Suddenly, those grand plans are up in the air. Costs have skyrocketed to nearly $18 billion. At the same time, Germany, a key ESA backer, is being walloped by the huge bill for reunification. The European space program always has been a carefully balanced mix of projects -- with the French, Germans, Italians, and British each taking the lead on different ones. With budget pressures causing old national rivalries to flare, Europe's space barons have been wrangling for months. At the summit between France and Germany, which foot most of the bill, President Francois Mitterrand was expected to press Chancellor Helmut Kohl to keep the costly manned space effort going. And ESA Director General Jean-Marie Luton has been trying to hammer out a compromise that can win approval of all the countries when the space ministers meet on Nov. 20 in Munich to consider final development funding for the controversial Hermes shuttle and Columbus space platforms. It may be Europe's last chance for a manned orbital program of its own. Says Luton: "It's go or no go."

Europe's debate typifies the soul-searching every space power suddenly is engaged in. The collapse of the cold war has undermined much of the West's political argument that it had to best the Soviet Union by racing ahead. "All around the world, advocates of aggressive space programs are having to back off in their aspirations," says John M. Logsdon, director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University. "We see the pendulum swinging back to more realistic assessments."

Even before the Soviet Union's coup attempt, the budget for its Mir space station had been slashed by 20%. Now, the breakup into separate republics has put further support for the station and the expensive Buran shuttle in limbo. Meanwhile, Congress has scaled back plans for the U. S. space station, after cost estimates soared to $38 billion. After early experiments proved disappointing, dreams of vast commercial payoffs from research in space have faded.

HORSE-TRADING. For Europe, the main impetus is the desire to be treated as an equal. Though its Ariane program has 50% of the world market for launching commercial satellites, Europe's other efforts have been largely subject to whims of the U. S. When the U. S. canceled its half of a joint mission to survey the sun in the late 1970s, Europe was forced to go it alone. And repeated changes in the funding and design of the U. S. space station have frustrated Europe's plans for a lab module. Manned flight capability could mean new leverage over future joint projects. "Once the Europeans have Hermes, it changes the entire equation," says Lynn Cline, NASA's deputy director for international relations.

The European ministers will thus likely try to keep the major space projects intact -- but not without horse-trading. France prefers an autonomous European space program and leads development of the Hermes and the heavy-lift Ariane 5 rocket needed to launch it. Italy and Germany favor more collaboration with the U. S. So, they're developing a lab for the U. S. Freedom space station and a second, free-flying microgravity research lab originally designed to be able to dock with the station. Britain, disdainful of the entire manned space race, heads the work on a polar orbiting satellite for monitoring Earth.

The job of striking a balance falls to Luton, 49, the former head of France's space agency, who was boosted into office by his government to shore up support for Hermes. Luton's compromise would delay Hermes' launch by four years, until 2002, and delay and redesign the Free Flyer lab -- dropping the costly navigation gear needed to dock with the Freedom. Total costs would rise, but the compromise would cut annual payments by an average 11% until 2000 -- and by 16% for cash-strapped Germany. "Either ministers buy this package or we're in a catastrophe," says Lansranco Emiliani, program manager for Columbus.

There are plenty of hurdles to clear, however. Many researchers fear ESA's rising costs will harm unmanned science projects, such as Germany's planned joint missions with NASA to study comets and the stratosphere. Moreover, German Research Minister Heinz Riesenhuber says the end of the cold war requires a new direction: "We should come to some global cooperation in space strategy." And he is put off by 40% cost overruns for Hermes and design changes that added two tons of weight. "We failed to reach both performance and cost goals," says Riesenhuber, who wants to take three years more to verify the Hermes design before funding development.

SCALING BACK. But Europe's aerospace contractors argue that further delay would kill the project. Aerospatiale, Dassault, and others say they would have to disband existing engineering teams for ESA's manned program if they can't get a funding commitment this year. "We can't be strung along any more," says Ernesto Vallerani, chairman of Alenia Spazio, Italy's leading aerospace firm, which counts on Hermes and Columbus for 25% of its work load. As it is, Italy will give up some work on the space station module to cushion German contractors from a steep falloff in revenues when the Free Flyer is delayed.

Despite the hurdles, Europe's overriding will to have an independent manned presence in space is likely to win out. No politician can afford to inflict further damage on local aerospace companies already reeling from declining defense spending. With a chill settling over the Soviet and U. S. space programs, a bit of budget-stretching and design-trimming in Europe may not seem all that bad.

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