Agency says US policy statement has given concept a new impetus, but funding is key

Europe could launch a manned spaceflight programme within 15 years if the European Space Agency is given budgetary backing. The agency has launched a study into the feasibility of producing its own man-rated launch vehicle for use within international co-operation.

The study, part of ESA's Aurora space-exploration programme, is expected to be concluded before year-end and any proposals will be based on European Union member states' response to the recent white paper on European space policy, says Jack Metthey, director of the European Commission directorate general for research.

"The recent policy statement from [US President George] Bush has given manned spaceflight a new impetus, which could be harnessed to launch similar European projects," says Metthey. ESA director general Jean-Jacques Dordain says European space policy has always followed NASA's and any US refocus on manned spaceflight will make it easier and cheaper to launch such projects in Europe.

The EC expects any future space projects to be funded jointly with ESA, modelled on their collaboration on the Galileo navigation satellite system. EU members are set to decide on future funding for space projects this year and any review of manned spaceflight will depend on available backing, says Metthey.

Last year EU members contributed €5.4 billion ($6.9 billion) towards space research through the EC and most matched it with direct funding to ESA. If spending does not rise at more than its current inflation-linked growth rate, says Metthey, Europe will become entrenched as a second-class citizen to the USA and Russia in space.

An increase in space spending of 3.5% a year would enable Europe to embark on its own exploration using other nations' crew transport, probably Russia's. A growth rate of 4.6% annually would allow Europe to develop its own manned rocket or reusable crew vehicle, says Metthey. A more redundant version of Ariane is the most likely option.

"Europe has tended to be pragmatic, only getting involved with scientific and military missions of direct benefit; if we can convince member states of the advantages of manned flight, we hope to start work on this area," says Metthey.

Source: Flight International