Space exploration is at a crossroads: while China presses on with ambitious plans for manned flights, Europe, Russia and the USA are re-examining their priorities

When the 50th anniversary of the launch of Russian satellite Sputnik is celebrated on 4 October 2007, the world's space programmes are more likely to have come back down to Earth with a bump than reached the visionary heavens of those heady days of the 1950s.

Although this year has seen President George Bush announce a new space vision for the USA and the publication of the Aldridge Commission report, events in 2003 set the tone for the future of space exploration. It saw the launch of China's first astronaut in October, the complete restructuring of the Russian space agency, a shift by Europe to a more Earth-focused space strategy, and finally the grounding of the Space Shuttle fleet after the loss of Columbia on 1 February.

The death of the seven Shuttle astronauts resulted in a reinforcement of the USA's cultural choice to have manned spaceflight at the centre of its exploration effort. Speaking from NASA headquarters in Washington, Bush announced his new space vision on 14 January by saying: "Since the beginning of our space programme, America has lost 23 astronauts and one astronaut from an allied nation - men and women who believed in their mission and accepted dangers. As one family member said, 'The legacy of Columbia must carry on for the benefit of our children and yours'. Columbia's crew did not turn away from the challenge, and neither will we. Today I announce a new plan to explore space and extend a human presence across our solar system."

The USA's reorientation and restructuring of NASA has dominated the headlines, but developments in the world's other major space programmes are equally significant in pointing the way to the future exploration of space.

In Europe it is not disasters but political integration that has spurred a new direction for space activities. The 25 countries of the European Union have agreed to include space as an EU competence in the new European constitutional treaty. The philosophy is that industries across Europe will supply the technologies and all EU countries will share the costs and rewards of launching satellite services, civilian and military.

This will mean major changes for the European Space Agency (ESA), whose director-general, Jean-Jacques Dourdain, says: "It's not so much the future of ESA, it's the future of space in Europe. I think the future of ESA is not so important. What is important is what space can bring to scientists and citizens and this is exactly why we are working to make ESA closer to the EU - to make the space world closer to the world of citizens."

That aim is explained in the EU/ESA framework agreement, signed last year, which effectively makes ESA a space technology supplier to the EU's own embryonic Earth observation satellite-focused programme. Dourdain says this is a significant change, adding: "It's a different ESA. ESA will be very different in a couple of years from what it was in the first 30 years."

Part of that change includes launching satellites on Russian Soyuz boosters from ESA's launch pad in French Guiana. Russia will benefit from that arrangement while still launching manned flights from Baikonur, Kazakhstan.

However, Russia's space aspirations have been shaped by the new realities of the post-Soviet economy. Under President Vladimir Putin's administrative reform, the Russian Aerospace Agency (RAKA or Rosaviakosmos) has lost its aviation research role and been turned into the Federal Space Agency (FKA), with General Anatoly Perminov replacing industrialist Yuri Koptev as its general director.

The appointment of Perminov, a former ballistic missile unit commander and head of Russia's Space Forces, is said to be aimed at tightening the connection between military and civilian programmes and shifting Russia's space programme from manned to robot spacecraft. Putin says the country is moving "from political space to pragmatic space, so that our achievements are better felt by the people".

But in China, space is still very much political. The country's space programme is a key prestige project for the communist government, which launched its first satellite in 1970. With its one manned flight in 2003, China is following the pattern of early Russian and US space programmes by launching missions for national pride. The astronaut's flight aboard a Shenzhou V capsule is described as a "showcase for China's coming of age as a major player in international affairs" by Li Cheng, professor of government at Hamilton College, New York, USA.

China has said it will probably launch its second manned space flight within two years and the mission will carry two astronauts. However, its 10-year space plan also includes non-manned missions. Priorities are to set up a satellite broadcasting and telecommunications system and to build an integrated military and civilian Earth observation system. It has also entered into an agreement with the EU on the global positioning system, Galileo.

China ambitions

But China's aims go way beyond satellites - it has spoken of space stations and lunar programmes. Wang Yongzhi, chief engineer of China's manned space flight programme, has said a major aim is to have a Chinese space station. It would take up to 15 years to achieve and would be developed in three stages. The first is the launch of unmanned spacecraft, the second is the construction of short-term space laboratories and the third is the building of a long-term manned space station. China also plans unmanned lunar missions, including a probe to orbit the Moon.

The USA is the only other nation with long-term lunar ambitions. Bush's space vision, dubbed Project Constellation, calls for the completion of the International Space Station (ISS) by 2010, the retirement of the Space Shuttle fleet by the same date, and a manned lunar mission by 2015 or 2020 at the latest. To achieve this, the plan calls for a new manned vehicle, the Crew Exploration Vehicle, which would fly in 2008 at the earliest and have its first manned mission by 2014. Bush also spoke of having the capability for an extended human presence on the Moon and the development of technologies to travel beyond the Moon.

The next objective would be Mars, and although the Chinese have no plan to reach the Red Planet, the Europeans have since 2001 had the official long-term goal of reaching Mars by about 2030.

At the Aldridge Commission hearings this year, ESA space exploration chief Daniel Sacotte outlined how Europe wanted to be a major space partner for the USA and be heavily involved in the robotic aspects of Constellation and the eventual manned missions to the Moon and Mars.

The ESA has its own long-term programme, Aurora. Launched in 2001, this largely robotic vision is now changing with the advent of the EU's space programme and in response to the USA's Project Constellation. "We are broadening Aurora and its missions," says Sacotte. "There will be more technology missions to widen the interest to all our member states."

During this re-evaluation, one of the first changes has been the programme's name. That is now the Preparatory European Space Exploration Programme (PESEP), but this may not be its final name when the refashioned programme is agreed at an ESA council meeting in 2005. What is assured, however, is that Russian Soyuz rockets will be a major part of the Europeans' plans. Separate from PESEP but just as important is ESA's Soyuz from Kourou plan. Agreements have been negotiated and signed during the past year to launch satellites on Soyuz rockets from the French territory, with the first satellite launch expected in 2007 (Flight International, 18-24 May).

For the Russians, this will help maintain their development of rocket technology for the satellite-launching market and bring in revenues to allow them to renew their satellite infrastructure while continuing to support the ISS with Soyuz astronaut launches to the station and Progress tanker craft supply deliveries.

All these space programmes, whether satellite constellation renewals or lunar missions, have to be sustained with inflation-beating budgets and this is perhaps the greatest challenge. In China this is less of a problem because that one-party state can, like the former Soviet Union, push ahead with its work regardless of public opinion. However, the European, Russian and US space agencies are accountable to politicians and the public.

For the USA this has been a problem for decades. Its grandiose plans after the Apollo missions were cut back by President Richard Nixon to just the Shuttle. Plans for the space station, originally announced by President Ronald Reagan, were changed repeatedly and it required the addition of Russian participation for the programme to be approved by President Bill Clinton's administration.

The Aldridge Commission's conclusion on the issue of sustainment was to avoid requests for huge increases in the NASA budget. This new approach is referred to in the report as the "pay as you go" method. "It is a pay as you go plan, where we achieve periodic milestones, technological advances and discoveries based on what we can afford annually." This policy would keep the NASA budget below its historical average of 1% of the US federal government budget. The drawback of this is if NASA and its industrial partners cannot work within the budget, causing delays to the Shuttle fleet's return to flight, development of the Crew Exploration Vehicle and other Project Constellation technologies. China may even beat the USA to the Moon.

European constraints

The Europeans have always had to live with such budget arrangements. ESA's partners have historically gained work for their aerospace industry that is proportional to their investment.

However, under the new EU/ESA arrangement, that annual budget could increase - but not for space science and exploration, even if ESA claims it wants to explore the planets with NASA. "Increasing the budget is not an objective per se," says Dourdain. "It's not an objective to get more money for space. I am convinced that the budget of ESA will increase, but just as a result of increasing demand [for Earth-based applications], rather than a result of a more dedicated space budget coming from the research." Those applications are the likes of Galileo and satellite services for the EU's agricultural and security needs.

Project Constellation is far more ambitious than ESA's Earth observation goals and linked to the issue of sustaining the programme is international co-operation. Including other countries in the USA's space goals helped sustain the ISS and the Aldridge Commission's sixth finding was to include other countries in Constellation. "The vision provides the opportunity for significant participation by international partners," said Aldridge. "It is hard to envisage a national space programme based on exploration solely by the USA or any future human spaceflight mission that would be flown only by Americans."

NASA is already working with ESA and, at the end of 2003, the two agencies concluded a study into costing a series of manned Mars missions (Flight International, 1-7 June), the total price of which was up to $127 billion.

Russia is another potential partner and Perminov says plans for Mars are under discussion with the USA, but while Russia is ready to share its expertise, "new programmes will [only] see our participation in the form of a serious scientific input".

Assuming the billions can be found, the 50th anniversary of Sputnik's launch could witness a reinvigorated US space programme, the ISS on its way to being completed, new launch capabilities for Europe and more Chinese astronauts. However, Bush may not be re-elected, the Chinese may suffer their own Columbia-type disaster, and Europe may simply want to complete Galileo. Space is cold and harsh, as is politics, and failures and budget cuts could yet ground humanity.


Source: Flight International