THE VERY PUBLIC LOSS of the prototype Ariane 5 on 4 June was not so much a setback for European space activities as it was for European space pride. It should also, however, make European space officials - and their paymasters - reflect on just what is the object of that pride.

The European Space Agency (ESA) expects to establish the technical cause of the Ariane failure in the next six weeks - if only all flying machines were blessed with so much active telemetry, so that all aviation-crash investigations could be completed so quickly. It is to be hoped that the cause, once identified, will be easy to correct, so that the Ariane 5's promise can be fulfilled early.

It will take rather longer, however, to identify (and remedy) the reasons behind the loss of something far more valuable than pride - that of the payload of four Cluster satellites.

On the surface, the reason is simple: ESA officials saw the otherwise-empty payload bay, of the prototype Ariane 5, as offering a launch opportunity. Better take a chance on a ride on a prototype flight, they apparently reasoned, than wait until another launch opportunity presents itself.

Therein lies a clue to the real reason. In no properly structured space programme should there have been a project whose launch plans were so opportunistic. The Cluster mission represented an (uninsured) investment of $350 million, never mind the thousands of man-years involved in designing and building those four satellites. Was the Ariane 501 the only way the Cluster project was going to get off the ground?

The answer is that European space activity is in a crisis. True, there is an international co-ordinating body (ESA) and an international commercial launcher company. Arianespace is - and will continue to be - a successful commercial launcher operation, albeit one whose latest model will be under a cloud until several successful launches have been made, and which may have to rely on its less-competitive older, Ariane 4 models, until a little later.

ESA, like most government-funded space organisations worldwide, is still grappling with the problem of shrinking its grandiose ambitions to match the distinctly modest spending plans of its sponsor governments. The trouble is that the modesty of those spending plans is accelerating far more rapidly than ESA's ambitions are decelerating.

The result is, that there are more and more programmes, whose funding is becoming so marginal that they may only remain viable through reckless gambles such as that of launching the Cluster satellites on an untried prototype. Such gambles serve science not at all, whether or not they come off. Indeed, had the Ariane 5 launch been a success, ESA could well have been lulled into a sense of false security by the assumption that all such gambles would come off.

Such an attitude could only further delay the acceptance of reality by ESA and its sponsor governments. Europe cannot afford (nor, indeed, can the USA or Russia) to maintain scientific space exploration at previously dreamed-of rates. What it must do is come to a realistic assessment of what its government-funded co-operative organisation needs to do in exploration, and what its commercial organisation can do in exploitation. If there can be, a commercial pay back from exploration, so much the better. If there can be, a scientific payback from the commercial exploitation better still. No European government or organisation should assume, with any realistic hope of success, that these two largely separate activities can be piggy-backed in the interests of expedience.

With the established European space champions of France and Germany reining-in their previous expenditures, and the UK Government continuing its shameful denial of better funding for both the scientific and commercial opportunities of space, ESA must establish a new agenda for its scientific activities. The accent must be on what is most needed, and what can realistically be afforded. In neither category can pride be counted as a candidate.

Source: Flight International