The best known achievements in spaceflight are most likely Yuri Gagarin’s first human orbital flight and Neil Armstrong’s first steps on the Moon. Both have been achieved by the two space-superpowers, the USA and the Soviet Union. Their dominance in the human exploration of space makes it easy to forget that Europe has a space programme as well.
Since 1975 the European Space Agency (ESA) coordinates and embodies the national space programmes of its member states, and even before that, European nations were already contributing towards the scientific exploration of the universe. By means of a few guiding questions, this article will in the following attempt to give a coherent overview of Europe’s current involvement in space exploration, as well as consider the virtues of space flight in general.
ESA funds are largely made up of contributions from its participatory countries as well as the European Union. Currently its annual budget is around € 4 billion. While this may sounds like a lot of money, the sum is easily dwarfed by what NASA, the American agency, spends. NASA has an annual budget of over 14 billion Euros. In relative terms that is about 0.5% of the American federal budget, well down form close to 4% during the time of the Apollo Programme that sent humans to the moon.
What are ESA’s current programmes?
What is the money actually spent on? ESA does not have an independent capability to launch humans into space. Until their retirement last year, European astronauts hitched a ride on the American Space Shuttles. Today the only vehicle capable of transporting astronauts into orbit is the Russian Soyuz capsule. ESA is paying the Russian space agency tens of millions of Euros for each European astronaut transported into space.
Once in space, European astronauts join their colleagues from Russia and the USA on the International Space Station (ISS) in conducting basic and practical research in countless scientific fields. ESA contributed to the ISS with the European Laboratory ‘Columbus’.
Apart from their efforts in the manned exploration of space, Europeans are very active in terms of unmanned projects. ESA has an independent capability to launch satellites into space from its launch center in French Guiana. The Ariane 5 rocket regularly brings commercial satellites into space; and cash into ESA’s pockets. Unmanned supply missions to the International Space Station are also conducted from French Guiana.
The recently started Galileo project will launch multiple satellites into earth orbit over the next years. Once operational, the Galileo system will constitute a rival to the American ‘Global Positioning System’ GPS, allowing individuals and enterprises to make use of the accurate locationing service. This gives Europe an independent capability in this crucial field of modern communications; the Americans after all could still shut down their system (and use it exclusively for military purposes).
Discoveries, but also trouble and costs
Research conducted in space has led to numerous advances for science, be it in the field of health, materials research or physics. Weightlessness and/or the vacuum in space enable scientists to carry out experiments only possible under these conditions. Of course the exploration of space also advances our understanding of our solar system, our galaxy and the universe. Every bit of scientific data, every magnificent picture from the Hubble space telescope or the car-sized Curiosity rover on Mars helps us to understand the universe a little bit better. Space exploration is thus also an endeavour to arrive at better answers to the question ‘who we are and where we are coming from’.
The sums spent on space exploration are of course not negligible. But it is important to remember that money is never spent in space. Every Dollar, every Euro invested in space exploration is spent here on earth. But it is also important, or even more important, to remember that space exploration is about more than scientific research. The International Space Station is not only a unique laboratory, but also a symbol for international cooperation between former opponents; it is the embodiment of a common human mission in space. A development of such common mission could be a flight to Mars.
Why is space exploration worth it?
But why should we go through the effort to land humans on Mars? The drive to explore, the curiosity to find out what lies behind the next frontier is an inherent part of being human. Following the path of space exploration thus not only leads to practical benefits, but is simply something we need to do. We discovered new continents, climbed the highest mountains, dove to the bottom of the oceans and set a foot on the moon. Why go to Mars? Because it is our next challenge!
Fulfilling our inherent destiny of exploration does not come without a price. Christopher Columbus lost the Santa Maria and much of his crew, numerous men failed before Sir Edmund Hillary was able to reach the top of the Mount Everest, Jacques Piccard and Don Walsh heard the metal hull of their submarine bending at the bottom of the Challenger Deep in the Mariana Trench, and Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin only had 17 seconds of fuel left when they landed their spaceship in the Sea of Tranquillity on the moon.
Space exploration is costly, very costly. But it is a price worth paying. And Europe ought to bear its part of the burden. America has always been a nation that was able to summon a great degree of purpose for a common goal. Europe so far has not. Such a sense however is essential for transforming a community of states into one community. Gathering around an inspirational goal such as common space exploration can play a crucial role in achieving just that.
To go further
On the internet
- The NASA Youtube Channel
- The ESA Youtube Channel
- A blog entry by Michael Mann on how the future of space exploration could look like
- A collection of photographs from the Hubble Space Telescope
Photo source: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center (Creative Commons License)