Led by France, Europe has proudly clung to the hope of launching its own manned space program, independent of those of the U.S. and Russia. The centerpiece was to be a manned space shuttle, Hermes, due to fly in the year 2002. But severe budget realities have brought that lofty ambition down to earth. In mid-July, France shocked its allies with a demand that the European Space Agency's annual budget growth over the next several years be limited to no more than 3%. That followed earlier cuts in ESA programs resulting from the high cost of German reunification.
Now, ESA must reassess its options. The latest cutback will likely delay development indefinitely of the 13-nation consortium's Columbus space lab. Worse, the Hermes will almost certainly be redesigned as an unmanned spacecraft for use as a technology test bed--and even that may never see the light of day. One probable result: The ESA may push for increased cooperation with the U.S. It is already looking to see how Europe might take responsibility for developing an emergency-return space vehicle that would serve as a lifeboat for America's Freedom space station--assuming that that beleaguered project survives severe congressional scrutiny.