Tuesday’s issue of The Christian Science Monitor has a detailed article about Europe’s long-term space exploration plans, notably proposals the European Space Agency (ESA) has floated for European-led human missions to Mars by 2030. This would be in roughly the same time frame as an American Mars expedition, based on the new exploration initiative President Bush announced last month. Does this mean that there’s a space race afoot between the U.S. and Europe? Probably not.
ESA does have a program underway called Aurora to study means for robotic and human exploration of the Moon and Mars, with a few near-term projects, notably ExoMars, a rover mission to Mars similar to NASA’s Mars Exploration Rovers, scheduled for launch in 2009. But Aurora’s budget is very small: just 14 million euros ($18 million) over three years, starting in 2002. Additional funding will also be hard to come by. Last fall a budget squeeze forced ESA to cancel one future mission (Eddington, a spaceborne telescope to look for extrasolar planets), and cancel the lander portion of its BepiColombo mission to Mercury. Earlier this month, after long negotiations among its member nations, ESA also agreed to spend nearly one billion euros through the end of the decade to support its Ariane 5 rocket, as well as spend several hundred million euros more to build a launch site at its Kourou, French Guiana spaceport for Russian Soyuz rockets. With those kinds of budget pressures, it will be hard to find the money to fund the ExoMars rover, let alone send humans to Mars. As one analyst colorfully put it in the Christian Science Monitor article, “it’s all pink smoke.”