European Space Policy debate returns to Leuven

October 13, 2004

Brussels, 12 Oct 2004

On 30 September 2004, high-level representatives from academia, government and the space sector gathered at the Catholic University of Leuven's historic Willem Van Croy Auditorium to discuss the role of science as Europe moves forward in space.

"This is an important moment," said Roger-Maurice Bonnet, Executive Director of the International Space Science Institute in Bern and former Director of the European Space Agency (ESA) Space Science Programme. "ESA and the European Union are now putting into practice their newly formulated relationship, but we still see European space science programmes competing with one another, including ESA programmes and EU and ESA Member States' national programmes."

New framework

While ESA is not an agency of the European Union, the two organisations have forged a close working relationship in recent years, due to the important role of space in maintaining Europe's political and economic strength.

In November 2003, the European Community and ESA signed a Framework Agreement on future co-operation and the joint development of a comprehensive European Space Policy. The Agreement officially entered into force on 28 May 2004, with the launch of the High-Level Space Policy Group in June 2004, signalling the beginning of joint activities.

Bold vision must not blind

Much of the discussion in Leuven concerned Europe's response to the 'Bush vision' outlined in January 2004. "The American vision represents, more than anything, a confirmation of the importance of space at the highest political level. Here we have the President of the United States, an important man, outlining a bold scheme for space exploration. The point is that he is a powerful leader, and he has come out and, in a very visible way, set explicit and ambitious goals for his country. Now, whether or not this vision is realised in exactly the way it has been stated is perhaps not the most important question.

"We can certainly debate the relative merits of the Bush plan, the outlook for funding, etc., but the real point is that the United States has once again taken the initiative and sent a clear signal to the space community. This is the kind of signal we need here in Europe, a signal from our leaders that tells us where we are supposed to be going."

Bo Andersen of the Norwegian Space Agency (NSA) agreed: "The EU and ESA must make clear what it is they want to do in space. There must be strong political will and it must be expressed in a highly visible way."

Representing the American perspective, Peter Ahif of NASA's Exploration Systems Mission Directorate explained that the Bush vision implies extensive international co-operation. "We are now inviting any and all comers to join in this effort. We are soliciting ideas from our traditional space partners, but also from newcomers on the space scene, like China. Making this happen requires that we bring all of our communities together, getting a mixture of new and innovative ideas onboard, and that we have the public behind us."

Space science makes a significant contribution to our knowledge of the world and the universe. Through leading-edge space-based research in the physical and life sciences, on the effects of microgravity and in many other areas, and through the exploration of space itself, Europe has continued its heritage of excellence in science. As a result, the space sector is now a prime source of technological and commercial progress.

For the scientific community, the critical role of basic science remains indisputable. Though often overlooked by the public, the basic research lab remains at the cutting edge of technological progress, holding the keys to understanding the essential principles that underlie life and the world around us. Space science must, nevertheless, compete with many other well-deserving uses for public funds.

Again, referring to the question of 'bold vision', Bonnet pointed out: "We are of course inspired by the idea of going to the moon and Mars, but new budgets for space exploration can mean cutbacks for basic space science."

Andersen then challenged the audience: "The best way to ensure ongoing space science is to cancel all exploratory missions and the International Space Station! None of us want this, but the reality of space activities in Europe, characterised by chronic low political commitment and inadequate funding, means this is often the kind of choice we are faced with."

A changing international context

In November 2003, the European Commission adopted the White Paper on European Space Policy. The White Paper recommends the development of a strong, scientific, technological and industrial base for space activities. This is to be based on and guided by a 'European Space Programme', which is currently being developed by the EU and ESA – scheduled to be adopted by the Commission in spring of 2005. Research will play a key role in the European Space Programme, focusing on:

  • Technologies for the exploitation of space in the areas of satellite radionavigation (GALILEO), global monitoring for environment and security (GMES), and satellite telecommunications;
  • Space transport technology – essential for ensuring independent access to space for Europe;
  • Scientific activities in space, including, for example, the use of the International Space Station and space exploration.

Representing the European Commission, Alan Cooper of DG Research said, "The EU Space Policy debate has acted as a rallying point for our 'space troops', bringing us together and focusing our attention as Europeans in space. Now are looking to the 'Wise Persons Group' which has been charged with delivering a vision for European space exploration. We are actively seeking to extend and solidify our traditional co-operative relationships with the USA and Russia, and we believe there is a place for 'symbolic' human missions, such as landing a human on Mars, which stimulate the sense of adventure. Above all, we must have a clear strategy and we must speak with a single European voice."

More speakers

Eric Beka, speaking on behalf of Marc Verwilghen, Belgian Minister of Economy, Energy, Foreign Trade and Science Policy: "One of the prime missions of space policy is to answer the human craving for knowledge that has always drawn us to the cosmos, to understand its origins, its mechanisms and its destiny."

Giovanni Bignami, Director of the Centre d'Etude Spatiale des Rayonnements (CNRS/UPS) in Toulouse: "Science is a cornerstone of European society and we have a great heritage of exploration and discovery behind us. We now look to the EU to provide structure and support."

Serge Plattard, Secretary-General of the European Space Policy Institute (ESPI) in Vienna: "Europe should aim to be a prime contractor, as opposed to a subcontractor on any human Mars mission. Exploration is not an option we choose. It is written in the human heart."

Daniel Sacotte, Director of ESA's Exploration programme: "ESA is open to new modes of co-operation with NASA, but we must have our own set of priorities. For us, science and exploration must go together."

A successful workshop series

According to Irina Adamovitch of Systemics Network International (SNI), the organisers of the Leuven Space Policy series, the workshops were supposed to have ended after the fourth instalment. "These events have been so successful and the demand for additional workshops on additional topics has been so great, we simply could not not extend the series."

SNI and the Catholic University of Leuven are also in the process of setting up the Interdisciplinary Centre for Space Studies (ICSS), which will carry out academic research in space-related disciplines and offer Master's degree and PhD programmes.

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