As a gloomy Paris Air Show moves forward at Le Bourget, the U.S. Augustine Commission is meeting this week in both public and closed-door sessions with industry and government representatives.
The gloom at Le Bourget has more to do with the mysterious Airbus crash off of Brazil, and the depressed economic conditions affecting world travel, and not with the uncertainty afflicting space exploration.
But the question needs to be asked as to the relationship, if any, between the results of the Augustine Commission and the overall health of the international space industry. Put another way, does the European space community continue to need NASA leadership in space exploration for its own well being?
I have this feeling that Europe is reaching a point where, although American guidance (and funding) remains valued, it may no longer remain necessary. The European community is inexorably moving towards a firmer operational tie-in with the Russians, and preparing as well for the arrival of the Chinese.
It is becoming possible to imagine that the next generation of huge international space projects will take place with or without American leadership - not participation per se, but leadership. The signs are everywhere that there is increased EU comfort in thinking through a compatibility between Russian and European programs, with a slot in place for China. And Japan. And India.
Whether in terms of operational launch capability, low Earth orbit operations, human space flight, cargo return, lunar and Mars exploration, the Russian and European officials are laying the groundwork for post-ISS programs.
While work continues on the Soyuz-2 launch pad at Kourou, the European Space Agency will meet later this year to consider whether to begin a European human exploration program. Russian and European officials also met earlier this year to discuss a fascinating plan to develop a low Earth orbit “shipyard” where spacecraft and vehicles could be assembled and deployed. Of course, as the aborted discussions of a Russian-ESA human-rated spacecraft demonstrated, there are always significant institutional hurdles that must be overcome.
And what of the Augustine Commission? What consideration, if any, will be given to the jigsaw puzzle that is the possible role of Europe, Asia and Russia in future U.S. civil exploration programs? My hunch is right now very little.
We are still in the mindset of the earlier space era. But to me it is no longer valid to ask about the price tag for a lunar mission. The first question is to understand what we are contributing. And what are India and Japan and Europe and Russia contributing? Is it a commercial model or traditional government-to-government? In this new world, only after understanding the full international picture should both the need and cost be considered.
Everyone will wait for the Augustine Commission results and react accordingly. But we should realize that at Le Bourget future international space plans are being made, and agreements reached, no matter the Augustine Commission’s conclusions.