July 2, 2008

France Plans To Reform The European Space Agency

The French government is making ambitious plans for European missions to the Moon and Mars. 

The nation wants to start a space revolution by letting European Union politicians decide on goals for the European Space Agency (ESA).

According to the French, Europe will fall behind Japan, China, and India if it refuses to change its approach to space.

France is seeking to drive the agenda to the forefront with the UK's help during the French presidency of the EU.

A senior representative involved in the French space policy said it was time to make the European Space Agency more like NASA by giving it political bent.

On the first of July France will gain control of the European Union presidency, and are hoping to make space policy a major area for change.

According to the senior representative, Europe needs a space agency that follows a clear political agenda to keep from becoming irrelevant in the global space arena.

"The United States, Russia, China and Japan would not do what they do in space without a political motivation; Europe has only had a scientific motivation until now. So what we are saying is, let's get the same chances as the others."

Alan Cooper, a space policy manager with ESA, says it's unfair to compare the ESA with NASA.

"NASA has the reputation it has on the strength of the programs it has delivered," he told the BBC.

"It spends seven or eight times as much as the ESA spends in a year. Its profile you would expect then to be seven or eight times higher than the ESA. If you want the European space program to have the same impact, it will need a higher profile and the investment to match those goals."

The European Space Agency was created in 1975 and includes member states from outside the EU "“ Norway, Switzerland, and Canada.  The outside nations participate in projects under a co-operation act.

The ESA's mission is to further develop Europe's space capabilities through objectives that are industrial and scientific.  Each member-state receives money for its space industry roughly equal to the amount of money each state pays into the ESA. 

The agency has seen many successes in space exploration.  It has contributed to the International Space Station, trained astronaut corps, built a launch site in French Guiana, and has become a player in the commercial satellite business.
Currently the ESA is developing a controversial global navigation system called Galileo.

Critics of the ESA believe it belongs to the age when European space actions were seen as a political bridge during the American/Soviet space race.  According to critics, the ESA needs to lose its dependence upon others.

Documents obtained by the BBC show that France's plans for an ESA overhaul are in a very-developed stage.  The documents show that the French believe a politically led space campaign is essential for Europe to be taken seriously in the global arena.

The papers mentioned that Europe needed to play an "indispensable" part in a future manned mission to Mars.

The French official commented on the issue of Mars by saying "The French impetus would be to say that a European contribution to a human flight mission to Mars is something we should set as an objective."

"It's exactly this kind of question that needs to be answered - this is highly political. You have to say, do you want to go human, to the Moon first, or do you want to go directly to Mars, which is the French position."

"These are all political questions, of course. You can turn them into science, but they are political questions and the ESA cannot answer them and this is why we need a political element."

Alan Cooper believes that political leadership would be welcomed by the ESA if it comes with increased resources. 

"If we are focusing on the question of whether we welcome an increase in political interest in space in Europe - clearly, yes, if that results in higher goals and the investment to match, we would be extremely happy about that."

The UK is a major partner in the ESA reform according to the French.

Both nations shared similar views on allowing business to be involved with the ESA to develop commercial opportunities.  The countries also share similar views on space exploration.

"It is mainly since the arrival of our new President that we have come up with a pretty British type of idea," the French representative said. "Britain has always been pushing for exploration and by discussing our plans, we have had quite a good reaction from the British National Space Centre and from the ministry."

But the French acknowledge that there will be opposition from some nations.

France's EU presidency will also coincide with a meeting of ESA member-state leaders in November.  Many issues are expected to surface in the discussions.

In 2004, a Space Council was created due to the acknowledgement that the interests of the ESA and the EU overlap.  The council is currently used for member-states to discuss concerns. 

The economic future of the EU is believed to be dependant upon some space projects such as the Galileo global navigation system.  Projects are deemed so necessary that the European Commission in Brussels is often the driving force behind them.


Image Caption: Artist's impression of GIOVE-B in orbit (ESA)


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