Astronaut, Cosmonaut... Euronaut?
Space exploration may come naturally to Europeans, but it doesn't come easily.
- By William Triplett
- Air & Space magazine, September 2003
NASA and ESA
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ESA’s astronauts, of course, beg to differ. They say that Columbus, the research module their agency is building for the space station, will provide the “solid structure” Baudry finds lacking today. Scheduled for launch no earlier than 2005, Columbus is advertised as a platform for microgravity experiments that could improve life here on the ground. “When I speak to audiences, the question comes up whether we should put money into spaceflight or maybe instead into hospitals,” says Reinhold Ewald, a German physicist and astronaut. “I say hospitals can be improved by making things [hospitals use] either cheaper or better through development in space.”
Columbus also is meant to evoke the pioneering spirit personified by its namesake. “Exploration is a deep part of European culture,” says Claude Nicollier, a 59-year-old Swiss who, with four shuttle missions under his belt, is one of ESA’s most experienced astronauts. But ESA’s primary interest in sending humans into space always has been scientific. Nicollier, Ulf Merbold of Germany, and Wubbo Ockels of the Netherlands—ESA’s first three astronauts, selected in the late 1970s to fly on Spacelab missions—were all scientists before signing up for spaceflight. “During the selection process they asked us questions about all different kinds of sciences,” Nicollier recalls. “They wanted to know not only if we were really qualified in our own fields, but also if we had interests in other fields.” It was not until 1992 that ESA hired pilots as astronauts; now almost half the corps have military aviation experience.
Another motive, not as easy to admit, is pride: Many Europeans would like a truly independent space program, instead of always having to hitch rides. But official backing for human spaceflight is weaker and more fragmented in Europe than it is in the United States. France’s Allegre was not alone in his critical view of astronauts. Britain’s Astronomer Royal, Sir Martin Rees, writing last year in the magazine New Statesman, called manned spaceflight “a rather jaded spectator sport,” and trashed the International Space Station as “neither practical nor inspiring.”
Public support isn’t what it used to be either. Byron Lichtenberg, a NASA mission specialist on Spacelab’s 1983 maiden flight, recalls huge, adoring crowds greeting ESA’s first three astronauts—Merbold, Ockels, and Nicollier—when they visited European cities during the early phases of their training. “Everywhere we’d go, they were the stars of the show,” Lichtenberg says. Merbold outshone the others, since he was the only European who would actually fly on the mission (the other two served in support roles). “If you mentioned Ulf Merbold’s name to anyone from Germany,” Lichtenberg says, “you heard, ‘Oh yeah, Ulf, he’s our astronaut!’ ”
But if Merbold were to walk through downtown Cologne today, no one would recognize him, says fellow German astronaut and shuttle veteran (STS-99) Gerhard Thiele. “Not even with a name tag. Everybody in Europe knows who Neil Armstrong is,” Thiele says, “but not everyone knows Ulf, and he’s one of the most popular.”
Media interest too has been fickle and nationalistic. Sweden’s first and only astronaut, Christer Fuglesang, drew attention from the Swedish press when his first flight assignment—on the now-delayed STS-116 mission—was announced last year. But no other European media expressed any interest, according to the NASA press office at Johnson Space Center. To be fair, spaceflight doesn’t thrill the American public like it once did either. But its place in the country’s cultural history and mythology is secure. In contrast, the ESA human spaceflight program has barely registered in the European collective consciousness. Not long ago a survey showed that only about one in 10 Europeans even knew of the agency’s existence.
No matter, say ESA astronauts. They don’t really care to be cultural heroes. “We bring a rational approach to human spaceflight,” says Ewald. “Our approach is away from having to prove something, as on the Russian side, which wants to prove it’s still a strong actor in space. And we are less concerned than the U.S. about how astronauts are perceived by the public.”
Like many of his colleagues, Ewald, 46, speaks in earnest, subdued tones that belie a lifelong enthusiasm for space exploration. A science fiction fan as a child, he was awed by the Apollo moon missions. Ask ESA astronauts what awes them now and their answers don’t convey much excitement. They dwell instead on the challenge of a difficult job, as if it might jinx their chances of flying to admit how much they really want it.