- July 29, 2008
- Posted by: EARSC
- Categories: EARSC News, Internationalization
Europe’s space ambitions in context by Taylor Dinerman. Monday, July 28, 2008
Ireland’s rejection of the European Union’s Lisbon Treaty in a popular referendum should have put the plans to establish a new EU space organization, complete with its own budget, on hold. At least that would have been the case if there was a way to force the leaders of the Brussels-based organization to conform to the rules they have established. In the US our system of checks and balances works, however slowly and imperfectly, to limit the powers of the government to break the laws they expect everyone else to follow; in the EU such limits seem not to apply.
A large and prosperous scientific community that depends of the EU for its existence is a powerful disincentive for any state that wants to reduce the power of Brussels or even to leave the Union.
Aside from the military strategy involved in the new EU space policy (which has already been covered) the reasoning behind the ever-increasing European space effort is worth looking at from the angle of their long-term political goals. One of the most important reasons for the EU’s existence is the desire to get beyond the nation state, the existence of which is blamed for the disastrous wars of the 20th century, as if the pre-national feudal era was a time of perfect peace. Breaking down the barriers between nations both in the name of free trade and in the name of postnationalist or transnationalist ideology is at the core of the EU’s “project”. Science is by its nature non-nationalist. The EU’s desire to fund as much “science” as is politically feasible fits neatly into its larger political strategy.
There is also the continuing “brain drain” problem. Europe’s best scientists are still tempted to travel across the Atlantic to work for America’s well-endowed and independent universities. This sometimes gives them the chance to get involved in some of the highly-profitable startup firms that tend to spring up around these institutions. To keep these men and women contented and busy inside European research centers, generous funding for interesting projects is needed.
A large and prosperous scientific community that depends of the EU for its existence is a powerful disincentive for any state that wants to reduce the power of Brussels or even to leave the Union. Space programs carry a great deal of symbolic weight in addition to their scientific value. They are also nowhere near as controversial as nuclear projects or biotech ones. Launching a probe such as ESA’s Rosetta mission to Comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko is nowhere near as hard to support as building a new nuclear research center such as ISTAR or supporting new genetically modified organisms.
As an aside, someone should make a new study of the ways politicians have used science as a way to legitimate themselves. It is not simply a case of “racial science” or “scientific socialism”, but the way in which science is recruited or volunteers itself for all sorts of causes, much the same way that art in all its diverse forms has often been used as a political tool.
Space investments by the EU and by EU member states has played an important role in creating a set of “European” as opposed to purely national technologies. Even when a technology began as the project of a single nation, such as France with Ariane or Italy with Aleina’s pressurized space structures for the ISS, these have over time become less “national” and more European. This process will accelerate as the changes being made under France’s six-month EU Presidency become embedded in the institutions.
Europe is slowly moving towards a decision to build a manned spacecraft of its own. Logically the next step is to build a version of the ATV that can bring cargo back to Earth. After that it will not be too difficult to build a manned capsule comparable to the US Orion. How much they want to spend and what resources, particularly how many highly trained engineers, they have available will determine when this spacecraft will be ready. After that they will decide if they want to build a full-blown set of lunar travel systems. In spite of some reports coming out of Moscow, it seems that the Europeans have little appetite to jointly build a system with Russia.
Space exploration is no longer a duopoly of the US and Russia. The EU, India, and China all mean to play a role in the human expansion into the solar system.
For the US, Mike Griffin, in his speech to the French Parliament’s Space Committee, strongly rejected the view that it “…is somehow unfairly excluding international partners from the development of Orion and Ares.” He noted the many statements from French politicians, as well as from President Sarkozy, to the effect that independent access to space is an “absolute priority”. Neither the US nor the Russians nor the Europeans want to depend on the others more than is absolutely necessary. The “gap”, like the periods after the Challenger and Columbia disasters, is an experience the US does not want to see repeated.
Space exploration is no longer a duopoly of the US and Russia. The EU, India, and China all mean to play a role in the human expansion into the solar system. This should not surprise anyone: the need to explore and to build new settlements is universal. For Europe the obstacle will not be a lack of drive, but a conflict between those who want to explore and expand in the name of their respective homelands and those who want to do so as “Europeans.”
Taylor Dinerman is an author and journalist based in New York City.