Over the objections of Britain, European nations have agreed to fund an independent manned space program in a push for "full autonomy in space."
The move, which follows a period of debate and uncertainty for the European space community, increases pressure on the United States to keep its proposed international space station on schedule, some analysts said.
Ministers representing the 13 member states of the European Space Agency (ESA), as well as Canada and Finland, meeting in The Hague this week, adopted a long-range plan giving the go-ahead for Columbus, a $3.7 billion project. The package includes a manned module to be connected to the proposed U.S.-international space station, a free-flying human-tended station to orbit near it and a polar Earth-observation platform.
The plan also calls for about $4.4 billion for the Hermes space plane, a small reusable shuttle with an ejectable cockpit for a crew of three, and $3.5 billion for the Ariane 5 rocket, which is to boost the Hermes into space.
The European nations, with France and West Germany the major contributors, have committed to putting up "virtually all the money" for development. In fact, Hermes is "oversubscribed," with up to 107 percent of the needed funding, said Ian Pryke of ESA's Washington office. "This means we can get started."
The British government recently declined to increase its space program funding and one minister reportedly called ESA "an expensive, elite club." This week, it did not pledge any contributions to the new projects, according to Jack Leeming, director general of the British National Space Center, because of opposition to the Hermes and unresolved questions about Columbus and Ariane 5.
"We're not against man in space, but we're against the proposal that we should achieve autonomy by the year 2000," Leeming said in a telephone interview from London. "We've reserved our position on Columbus. We only wanted to join in the context of an agreement with the U.S. on the international space station, and I think we're fairly close to getting one."
As for Ariane 5, he said, "We're more interested in launching satellites than in launching man and we want to make sure we'll have an economically competitive launcher for that purpose."
"This is a turning point for the Europeans. Up to now they've only talked. Now it seems they're willing to pay," said space policy analyst John Logsdon of George Washington University. "The Germans have decided to agree with the French that manned programs are very important."
The agreement also "puts more pressure on the U.S. to go ahead with our part of the bargain on the space station," he added.
There has been speculation that Congress would kill the space station or significantly delay it in the current deficit reduction process. Logsdon said the United States, as originator of the space station proposal, "faces the potential for a significant foreign policy loss . . . if we back out and they go ahead."
Despite the increase in funding for the new projects, the European civil space budget is still less than half that of the United States, ESA officials noted. And this week's agreement calls for ESA to take belt-tightening measures.