Man-On-The-Moon Envy

Happy fortieth Man-on-the-Moon anniversary! Did you celebrate yesterday, maybe take your very own “one small step for man”? Let me tell you, the Europeans are still jealous! Why else would an editorial appear in Le Monde, that pillar of the French media establishment, whose very title declares Forty years after Armstrong, Europe should affirm its space ambition?

As the article’s author reminds us straight off the bat, using the words of John F. Kennedy, “It’s not just one man who will go to the Moon, it’s the entire country. Because each of us must mobilize to send him there.” Still, although they have yet sent no one there yet, Europe has been fairly active in space for quite a while. By now they have the powerful Ariane 5 rocket to their credit, which at the beginning of this month launched into orbit the world’s largest commercial satellite, a communications satellite weighing more than 7 tons. The European Space Agency has also made certain major contributions to the International Space Station, including delivering to it last year the first Automated Transfer Vehicle, an unmanned craft designed for resupply trips back-and-forth. Oh, and Europe’s space effort definitely means jobs, as this writer shrewdly points out: 40,000 directly employed in 2008, with around 250,000 further secondary jobs.

All that is just not enough, though, and you could gather from his headline that this writer would assert that. Just look at what you could call the “budget gap” between the European and American efforts: the Americans spend yearly eight times more than the Europeans’ outlay of €6 billion. The Russians are starting to pump more money into their own space program as well. Then there’s the Indians (recent space spending up by 25%), and the Brazilians are even getting into the act! Most of all, though, there is the Chinese, who have explicitly set themselves the targets of landing on the Moon by 2030 and on Mars by 2050, and whose space-expenditures are steadily growing by 12% each year.

(A quick aside: I had been unaware of those explicit Chinese space program objectives prior to reading about them in this Le Monde article. And it does seem to me that the implications of the first human setting foot on Mars turning out to be Chinese would be quite profound, in the first instance politically. This makes me shake my head in wonder at why there was no mention of the Chinese in the recent New York Times Op-Ed piece by Tom Wolfe advocating an explicit American effort for Mars. After all, Wolfe ascribes the overwhelming public support the Apollo program enjoyed to what he calls the “single combat” context in which it operated, i.e. those astronauts were the American champions taking on the Soviets in the race to the Moon; surely a similar dynamic would be in effect vis-à-vis the Chinese in a “race to Mars.”)

No, Europe needs to do better: “To preserve its rank as a great space power, Europe needs a new vision,” which besides spending more money (that goes without saying) in this author’s formulation means three things:

  1. Establishing the Galileo satellite-aided Earth navigation system, mainly because everybody else in the world has or is setting up their own – Russia: Glonass; China: Compass, etc. What the author leaves unmentioned here is what is likely Galileo’s main motivation, namely to enable Europe to escape what is its current almost total dependence on NASA and its GPS system.
  2. Building the Ariane 6, an even-more-powerful rocket which needs to get started on now if it is to be available sometime in the period 2025-2030. (Yes, again, the Americans, Russians, and the Chinese are of course working on their own new launcher-rocket models.)
  3. Developing the sort of space capsules necessary, “[i]f Europe wants to explore Mars or the Moon.” Fortunately, the previously-mentioned Automated Transfer Vehicle is a good start in that direction – if, indeed, Europe does actually want to explore Mars or the Moon.

But apparently Europe does, as we can infer from the good, stirring stuff that comes at the end:

The central question for Europe’s space ambition resides in the place we accord to manned space exploration. Do we have the courage to pursue along with others the greatest of adventures? Are we going to allow [those] others to pull ahead? Our common European engagement must stay true to this ambition of extending human knowledge and breaking down its limits. Manned space-flights are the best proof of our confidence in the future, of our confidence in Europe.

How eloquent! How stirring! How ghost-written, probably, because I haven’t yet clued you in as to just who the author of this piece is. It’s a certain Louis Gallois, who happens to be CEO of both Airbus and of EADS, a.k.a. the European Aeronautic Defence and Space Company N.V.

Let me ask you this: No matter how eloquent the language, just how much credence would you give to, say, an editorial in the New York Times from the CEO of Lockheed Martin arguing that the US should do more (i.e. spend more money) on its space program? For me, that would sort of blunt the impact of any of the arguments put forth . . . you?

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