WASHINGTON, Aug. 22 (UPI) -- For decades, the nations of Europe have conducted space activities mainly as scientific missions funded and embraced by the European Space Agency. Composed of 15 member states, including France, Germany, Italy, Spain and the United Kingdom, ESA has fielded space robots, military communications satellites, interplanetary probes, and participation in the International Space Station. However, the agency's successes in space have been achieved without a comprehensive roadmap for future planning.
Such policies often have been discussed by individual national states. CNES, the French space agency, for instance, has developed a strategic space plan that displays a decidedly military as well as civilian space flavor.
Now important political and economic voices within Europe are suggesting it is time for a more comprehensive plan to explore -- and exploit -- space. Moreover, much of this new interest in space efforts has come, not from the aerospace community, but from high officials of the European Union.
The chief catalyst has been Philippe Busquin, the EU research commissioner, who has attempted to focus more attention on space planning. Busquin is a strong supporter of increased scientific research in Europe.
"If Europe wants to remain prosperous, keep its social system and create employment, it has to invest more effort into science," he told an EU meeting in January. In Busquin's view, the current way space projects are established and managed by ESA alone is insufficient to lay the groundwork for future space leadership for all of Europe -- not just ESA's members.
While Busquin understands that maintaining ties with U.S. space projects is important -- both now and in the future -- increasingly he sees Europe going beyond the strategic partnership to become a leader in space -- in essence mounting a challenge to America for the pre-eminent role in the future. In speeches and lectures, he has hinted space technology needs a policy framework that treats it more as a continental resource important to European defense and economic strength. Space, in other words, should be seen as more important to Europe than the space science benefits it may deliver.
If Busquin's view gains ascendancy, Europe will require a new indigenous space industry upon which to build these future capabilities, replacing its dependence on other countries -- including the United States -- with both the direction and the resources to carry out advanced space flights.
To create such new abilities, however, all of Europe must support the idea of raising the importance of space. The United States, meanwhile, must come to understand both the opportunities a stronger European space power will offer it and the possibility that Europe could choose an independent route to the planets.
Europe took the first step down this path last January. Working closely with the ESA and other space analysts and advocates, the EU's European Commission approved one of its official "Green Papers" on Jan. 21 outlining the potential benefits of a comprehensive space policy. The 31-page document set forth a wide variety of space technology and exploration ideas, challenging the status quo to think about space in larger and longer-range terms.
Among the questions the paper raised were:
--What does Europe want from space exploration technology in the years ahead?
--What would be the selected goals, such as advanced space research or new launching vehicles?
--Is the aerospace industry in Europe capable of meeting new advanced goals in space?
--Under what situations should Europe seek to cooperate with the U.S. in space-and when should it seek to compete?
--Is the current plans for launching rockets sufficient to support Europe-only space goals, or are more advanced rockets needed in the future?
--What should Europe invest in future human space flight capabilities?
--Is European military space planning adequate?
--Should Europe continue to develop its own space satellite navigation system?
--What should the characteristics of future satellite communications be?
The paper strongly followed a similar U.S. effort made last year. The congressionally mandated U.S. Aerospace Commission reviewed the state of America's space industry, plans and industrial capabilities. It found much of the space effort lacking focus and the industry sliding into decline and decay, caused in part by reductions in research funding and a lack of top-level national space goals. In that context, Europe's effort marks a parallel course.
Busquin sent the paper throughout Europe. National governments weighed in. So did universities, industries and scientists. The end result was a roadmap that strongly suggested a consensus about space was emerging rapidly through Europe. That consensus called for new leadership, but not specific new programs. It also made note of the need, felt increasingly by many, to follow a more independent strategy in space from that of its U.S. partner.
On May 21, ministers gathered in Brussels to debate space policy. Busquin was joined by Lord Sainsbury, the U.K. minister of science and innovation, and Antonio Rodota, ESA's director general.
Together the panel addressed 350 representatives from governments, industry, and the research community. "Space and the way we exploit its potential can bring many benefits to the lives of all Europeans," said Busquin. "We should turn space research into an engine that fuels Europe's economic fortunes and improves the quality of life of our citizens," he added.
Lord Sainsbury saw increased cooperation in Europe as essential. "Working with our European partners is critical to the success of the U.K.'s space ambitions," he said.
The result was an endorsement of the green paper's goals and questions. At the same time the EU was moving toward its space plan, the Council of Ministers representing the ESA members adopted plans for new research and development of advanced space launch vehicles capable of carrying future European space satellites and craft. ESA also suggested all of Europe elevate the issue of space launchers to an important part of any policy prescription.
The European Economic and Social Committee published its study of the green paper on June 19. The non-political consultative group blends inputs from socio-economic and interest groups throughout Europe. Its conclusion was to support the idea of a new, all-Europe space plan. But it warned the success or failure of the initiative would be based primarily on "the strength of its political commitment and the clarity of its budget decisions." Special emphasis was given to the need for a "guaranteed autonomous access to space for Europe (new launchers)".
The specific projects and goals that might become the basis of any new space effort remained to be hammered out, but all EESC members seemed to agree to give new importance to space activities -- whatever shape they might take.
Events have moved rapidly since. The Council of Ministers approved a resolution on space and pointed the way toward adopting a new policy, to be preceded by a conference on the topic in November in Naples. The European Parliament followed with a resolution highlighting the importance of the space industry to all of Europe. On July 4, the European Convention urged the adoption of a space policy in the next EU Treaty.
At the closing of the green paper proceeding, Busquin said he hoped his efforts would yield a final policy that could be adopted by the EU by year's end, along with proposed budgets to pay for it.
"This is a major development, but it is only a first step, of course," he said, "but it opens the door to a new phase in European space activities."