At issue is the next big transportation project for the 13-nation European Space Agency (ESA), the Paris-based, intergovernmental body that coordinates Western Europe's space activities. The agency, which was formed in 1975 and spends about $1.5 billion a year, developed the French-inspired Ariane, a conventional, expendable rocket for launching satellites. Thanks largely to the shuttle problems in the United States, the rocket is likely to be the main launch vehicle for the western world's satellites over the next two years.
ESA has already decided to spend nearly $3 billion over the next decade to build a more powerful version of Ariane, the so-called Ariane-5, to lift heavier satellites. But the arguments about what comes next have already begun.
France, as the world's third biggest spender on space technology after the United States and the Soviet Union, is the dominant nation. within ESA. She has proposed spending up to $4.5 billion on Hermes, a miniature space shuttle, with room for several people, that would sit on top of a Ariane-5 rocket. Officials say that Hermes, for a relatively modest cost, would give Europe its first experience in operating manned space vehicles before 2000.
According to this view, Hermes is a vital ancillary to Columbus, a $3.5 billion orbiting laboratory that ESA hopes to plug into the proposed U.S. space station in the mid-1990s. Without Hermes, Western Europe would need to rely on American vehicles to ferry people and supplies to Columbus, a situation it is eager to avoid for both commercial and political reasons.
A second possibility is for ESA to drop the development of Hermes in favor of a British scheme called Hotol. Preparatory design work has started, but the ESA nations must still decide whether to build the vehicle. Hotol, which stands for Horizontal Take Off and Landing, is a far more ambitious project than Hermes. It is similar in concept to the transatmospheric vehicles being designed by the United States, both of which would use a novel air-breathing engine to fly into space from an ordinary runway.
In recent weeks, Britain has been suggesting a more radical option, namely, that ESA proceed straight to Hotol. Given such a commitment, British officials say, the plane could be flying by about 2002. Moreover, the money saved by not building Hermes could go toward the $9 billion needed for Hotol.
To complicate matters, West Germany has proposed a third space transportation project known as Saenger. It is a hypersonic aircraft, the' size of a jumbo jet, that would carry piggy-back a second, rocket-powered vehicle that would enter space. Like the other schemes, Saenger could put people and materials into space at a fraction of the cost of today's rockets. Scientists estimate Saenger could be built (for an estimated $18 billion) by about 2010.
The European space plane would benefit the 10,000 scientists and engineers employed by the European space program. Of these, about 1,400 work at the European Space Agency and 2,100 at the French National Space Agency, which is Europe's biggest space organization. The companies that would do most of the work on the three rival space vehicles are Aerospatiale and Dassault in France, British Aerospace in Britain and MBB in West Germany.
West German officials believe Hermes is a useful first step that should be followed soon afterwards by a Saenger-like project. In recent months, West Germany and Britain have been talking about a joint approach that would pool the best ideas from Hotol and Saenger. This has led to suspicion in Paris that a European space axis is being formed that could exclude the French from any launch program after Hermes. The ESA nations have only a few months to sort out a common approach before a grand ministerial meeting in the summer attempts to set the direction of Western Europe's space programs for the next 15 years.
The French bitterly resist any suggestion that Hermes be dropped, while the British have suggested that the Hotol project represents Western Europe's big chance to leap into the area of transatmospheric vehicles ahead of the United States and Japan. If Hermes gets the go-ahead, Britain argues, Hotol's development might inevitably be pushed back on financial grounds and Western Europe's hopes for technological supremacy in space launchers would be dashed.