Europe's space science programme is being nibbled to death, upsetting the fine balance between international competition and collaboration. Each bite taken in the past seven years from the budget of the 15-nation European Space Agency (ESA) is never enough to excite sustained indignation.
This silence seems set to stay because, unlike Americans, for whom NASA is iconic, the people of Europe have no sense of ownership or pride in the ESA.
It was against this backdrop that, last November, the ministers responsible for the ESA's spending over the next five years took yet another nibble at the budget. It was not only the mandatory space science programme -- to which members of the agency contribute according to GNP -- that suffered. So did scientific elements of Earth observation and a programme of planetary exploration. By contrast, ministers eagerly opened their chequebooks to pay for the optional Galileo, a navigation/positioning satellite system that (see page xiv) is designed mainly to establish Europe's technological and industrial independence from the US.
There are strong arguments for Galileo. But the priorities reflected by the financial choices suggest not only a dismissal of science, but also a preference for geopolitical competition in space rather than collaboration. That situation seems to have arisen more by default than because of an informed debate.
Like art and music, science is a universal language; it embodies an attitude to nature that shuns fearful superstition. Governments can use it with combative intent, but the practice of science itself (particularly its openness to scrutiny) is driven by a spirit of collaboration. To withdraw funding from space science is to run the risk of upsetting the balance between competition, embodied by Galileo, and collaboration.
Yet collaboration can have a significant political pay-off. At the height of the cold war, for example, during the International Geophysical Year of 1957-58, there was a quite extraordinary global collaboration of scientists from 67 nations, across the political boundaries. They openly shared data. And it was against this background that Sputnik was launched and the space age born. Without the International Geophysical Year, humanity would have gone into space in a far more combative frame of mind. From this same scientific collaboration sprang the Antarctic Treaty, which places freedom of scientific exploration at its heart and discourages sovereignty claims. …