While the USA continues to agonise over the future direction of NASA, including whether or not it will continue with its Constellation return-to-the-Moon programme, President Barack Obama and his advisers may do well to spare a moment to look across the Atlantic. There, they will find European Union politicians with a great deal of vision when it comes to their own future in space exploration.
Indeed, there is active talk of boosting European civil space spending by at least 50%, to more than €6 billion ($8.86 billion) annually from 2014 to lead a Mars sample return mission and launch astronauts.
In October in Prague, at the 1st EU European Space Agency international conference on human space exploration France's minister for higher education and research Valérie Pécresse said astronauts could be launched from the ESA and French space agency CNES's French Guiana spaceport. And, the possibility of a Mars sample return mission was repeatedly identified by other governments' ministers and European Commission and Western space agency officials.
Human exploration of the red planet, and the Moon, was also a feature of EC president José Manuel Barroso's speech to the 15 October Ambitions of Europe in Space conference: "Human space exploration of the solar system, including Mars and possibly the return of humans to the moon, could be the backbone of such a space exploration strategy."
Following the two October EC space conferences, the plan is to draw up an EU exploration roadmap in time for a November 2010 conference in Brussels. This roadmap would then guide future EU budget negotiations.
Possible space exploration activities
Through the council, ESA will be the EU's partner in any European human exploration programme and a Mars sample return mission in the 2020s is already part of the agency's Aurora programme. While Aurora was Mars-focused, ESA has also been involved, with 12 other space agencies including NASA, in the global exploration strategy which has the Moon as a goal.
ESA's budget is agreed in three-year tranches by its member states and for 2009 it is getting €3.5 billion. Just under 14% of that, €490 million, is to be spent on exploration and human spaceflight. ESA's next three-year spending cycle starts in 2011, making a 2010 European roadmap equally important for it. Because ESA's budget alone will not enable significant robotic and human exploration in the next 20 years, there will have to be a large increase in annual Commission funding - to about €3 billion.
The EC is getting a new budget in 2013 for the 2014-20 period. EC budgets are agreed for seven-year periods, but negotiations last for up to four years. For a space programme budget of €3 billion or more from 2014, the EC will have to draw up a plan in 2010 to have enough time to present it to the EU's member states.
Given existing ESA and international exploration plans, there are already a range of projects on the drawing board. These include ESA's Advanced Reentry Vehicle that brings cargo back from the ISS, NASA's International Lunar Network, a series of seismological landers on the Moon's surface, and a shipyard in orbit, which has been discussed by the EC, ESA and the Russian Federal Space Agency.
But even if the money for this robotic and human exploration of the solar system is approved, another challenge will be to agree the workshare between member states for any of these projects.
The Galileo satellite navigation programme has been bedevilled with political interference because the workshare was deemed so important that the EC approach of full competition was not acceptable. The clash has been between the EC's rules for transparent competition and ESA's geographical return principle that sees countries get back what they invest.
At the Prague conference the Italian government's space minister Giuseppe Pizza said: "I don't think we can totally change the rules of the game [for workshare]. This is a strategic challenge."