European space exploration efforts could get a substantial financial boost if the European Union formally supports human and robotic spaceflight following a year-long political process that kicks off next week at a conference in Prague.
A new development for the EU, which has funded science on the International Space Station, it would bring new funds for Moon and Mars missions that have previously only come from the European Space Agency, which is not an arm of the EU.
Independently, ESA has had its own Mars-focused robotic exploration programme, Aurora, and has engaged with 14 other agencies over the past three years in the global exploration strategy process. Through this it is considering joint human lunar exploration missions in the 2020s.
In its recent work with the EU, the space agency has managed the Galileo satellite navigation and Earth observation Kopernikus programmes. The involvement of the EU in exploration would bring about a new chapter in its relations with ESA.
The agency's director-general Jean-Jacques Dordain said at the International Astronautical Congress in Daejeon, South Korea: "It is the start of a process through which Europe will decide what to do. It is a political decision [to support exploration]. It's a process that will last about one year [leading] to a conference next year - it's a political conference."
Human spaceflight was mentioned in the EU's European space policy white paper published in November 2003, but was not included in the actual policy adopted in May 2007. The 2007 policy, jointly agreed with ESA, is about using space-based navigation, communication, observation and science to support EU policies, for example, in agriculture, climate monitoring and transport.
The 1st EU-ESA International Conference on Human Space Exploration in Prague on 23 October takes place a few months before the EU's latest reform treaty is likely to have been ratified by all its member states. The treaty gives the European Commission joint competency in space activities with its national governments.
The late 2010 timeframe for an EU decision may coincidentally parallel the US government's own timetable for developing its new exploration plan. President Barack Obama's office of science and technology policy is expected to receive its human spaceflight review report this month.
At the Daejeon congress NASA administrator Charles Bolden described a decision process following that report that would see a new exploration effort budgeted for by the end of 2010 for an October 2011 start.