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
HANS SCHLEGEL, A GERMAN EXPERIMENTAL PHYSICIST, was very much aware of his national identity at the start of his first trip into space in 1993. Five of his countrymen had preceded him into orbit by the time he served as a payload specialist on shuttle mission STS-55, a 10-day flight on which the astronauts conducted 88 experiments within the shuttle’s Spacelab science module. Another German payload specialist, Ulrich Walter, was on the same mission, and Schlegel and Walter sat beside each other during the launch. “But just before we got to orbit,” Schlegel recalls with a laugh, “I put my right foot a little bit ahead, so I was the sixth German in space and he was the seventh.”
Like others who have made the journey, though, Schlegel will never forget how his parochialism disappeared in the rush of emotion that hit him when he first saw the intensely blue Earth set against the blackness of space. “You have that moment when you look out and say, ‘Gosh, that’s South Africa!’ And after that comes about 40 minutes of Pacific Ocean—40 minutes! Then South America for 20 minutes, then nothing but the Atlantic Ocean for 10 minutes, and then you’re back over South Africa. All in about an hour and a half. And then you realize we are in a small spaceship circling another spaceship. It’s multinational [up] here too, with different races. It’s just like that big ship down there—we’re all in one boat.”
The work itself was satisfying in a way Schlegel had never experienced. Patiently and methodically, he and his colleagues carried out all the required experiment protocols, the silence occasionally broken by a business-like comment from one of the other astronauts or from a Houston ground controller. “Then you heard for the first time some laughter from ground control,” Schlegel recalls, “and you talked to scientists there on the ground for a few minutes, and you realized there was joy in their voices! There was enthusiasm about the results! That is the most remarkable experience I had. It’s something you can’t get with any project on the ground.”
And it’s something he may not get again.
Despite the success of his mission, Schlegel has been on the ground ever since, waiting for another flight assignment. Even though 10 more Europeans have flown on the shuttle since Schlegel, available seats are getting harder to come by. The recent loss of the space shuttle Columbia, and continuing doubts as to whether the International Space Station will ever be completed, only add to the uncertainty over how many non-U.S. astronauts will fly, and when.
The European Space Agency hired its first three astronauts in the late 1970s, then chose another six from 22,000 applicants in 1992. Until recently, France and Germany also had their own small contingents of space travelers. (Schlegel flew as a representative of Germany, not ESA.) Then, in 1998, after announcing it would integrate all European astronauts into a single corps, ESA began another, smaller recruiting effort. Today, the number of European astronauts stands at 15—about one-third the number of Russian cosmonauts and only about 15 percent of the number in NASA’s ranks.
An outsider might wonder why a continent with no space vehicle of its own, and no plans to develop one, would bother. True, at the time of the 1998 announcement ESA was already a partner in the International Space Station. But because Europe’s contribution of funding and services to the project is relatively small (five percent), astronauts will have few flight opportunities, which are assigned in proportion to each partner’s contribution. Even when the shuttle flies four times a year, one ESA astronaut would get to fly only every two or three years or so. European astronauts can also buy rides on the Russian Soyuz vehicle, but those flights too have become less frequent.
To some, like Patrick Baudry, a former member of France’s astronaut corps, the whole enterprise has become little more than a sham. “The European space program is nonexistent and null for manned spaceflight,” Baudry says. “It’s more political and bluff than a structured, solid program with a future.” Former French research minister Claude Allegre has been even more disdainful. In 2000, he told science writer Pierre Kohler that France’s astronauts “go into space for their own pleasure and go into orbit to get rich.”
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.
Those who have been up say it’s worth the wait. After working as an astronaut for 14 years, Nicollier finally made it to space on the STS-46 shuttle mission in 1992. He flew again the following year on STS-61, the first orbital service call to the Hubble Space Telescope. Even though he’s been up twice more since, including on another Hubble repair mission in 1999, during which he became the first European to make a spacewalk from the shuttle, his first trip to the space telescope is still the most meaningful. “I am an astrophysicist, and as an astrophysicist-astronaut working on Hubble, it was an incredible privilege,” he says. “There was a lot of pressure to succeed after the embarrassment of launching Hubble with a bad [mirror], and it was the very first time we started to do something we often do now—use a combination of spacewalking and robotics. It had never been done before, and we had to invent ways of stabilizing the crew member while he or she was working with power tools or manual tools. We also had to define the choreography and the rules of engagement, and even the wording that would be used.” Training for all these first-time tasks, he recalls, “was so incredibly exciting.” And when he returned to Hubble on another repair mission six years later, “it was like visiting an old friend.”
Approaching the European Astronaut Center in Cologne, you don’t see the same kinds of spacecraft mockups and other oversized national trophies that you find adorning the grounds of NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. Nor will you see in the surrounding neighborhoods inflatable space shuttles or neon planets mounted on the roofs of fast food restaurants.
The EAC is a solitary building with all the personality of a warehouse, located in what looks like an industrial park but is in fact the campus of DLR, Germany’s space agency. In front of the building, 15 flagpoles form a circle like a steel honor guard, each flying the colors of an ESA member nation—France, Germany, Italy, Sweden, Great Britain, Switzerland, Belgium, Spain, Holland, Portugal, Norway, Ireland, Denmark, Austria, and Finland. In the lobby a small scale model of the space station hangs from the ceiling. Similar models of Soyuz and Ariane rockets stand almost directly beneath, with a model of space shuttle Discovery nearby. Hanging on another wall are photographs of every European chosen to serve as an astronaut—33 in all.
The EAC was built in the late 1980s, at a time when ESA, with France taking the lead, was planning to build its own mini-space shuttle, called Hermes. Crew training would have been at the EAC. In the early 1990s, though, ESA canceled Hermes, in part because it was proving too expensive. Instead, the agency decided to keep buying tickets to orbit from Russia and the United States.
New ESA astronauts receive only basic training at the EAC. For most of their spaceflight training, they go either to the Johnson center or to Star City, outside Moscow. According to Hans Bolender, director of the EAC’s astronaut training division, the center teaches recruits “one year of fundamental knowledge of astronautics,” plus some basic space history.
Recruits also learn “generic information on [ISS] systems and elements, along with basic information about space biology experiments and their objectives.”
Eventually, the center will be the focus for training on the Columbus module and the Automated Transfer Vehicle, a large cargo carrier ESA is building for the space station. All station crews, even NASA astronauts and Russian cosmonauts, will come to Cologne to familiarize themselves with these two elements.
But until then, not much happens at the EAC. In fact, at the moment no astronauts are stationed there. Five ESA astronauts are undergoing some form of training at Johnson, and the rest are either at Star City training with cosmonauts or handling managerial or technical duties at other ESA facilities in Europe. Hence the EAC’s reputation as a bit of a white elephant.
“EAC? Right now it’s not used very much,” says Gérard Brachet, a former director general of CNES, the French space agency. “I’ve visited it several times, and the first thing you notice is how few astronauts are there.” Astronauts come occasionally to train on the mockup of the Columbus module, but they don’t stay long.
Some say the failure of the Hermes project, which robbed the EAC of its main purpose, was a blessing in disguise for ESA, because it helped the agency avoid a costly mistake. Keith Wright, who spent nearly two decades at ESA working as a systems and safety engineer on projects including Hermes and Columbus, says, “The big problem with Hermes was that it was really a political program on the French side. They wanted Frenchmen in space, Frenchmen landing on runways in France, this kind of thing. But they were going to put it on a launch vehicle that was not designed for that job—the Ariane 5 was not big enough. The [design of the] spaceplane got smaller and smaller and very expensive, and in the end proved impractical.”
Critical to that learning process, says Wright, was Nicollier, who advised the project on how systems would have to operate from the crew’s perspective. “The feedback we got from him when we were trying to design Hermes was absolutely invaluable,” Wright says. “And we couldn’t have gotten it without his experience.” NASA astronauts assume the same kind of advisory roles between spaceflights, but Russians are less likely to share information, say some ESA fliers who have worked in both programs.
“We had quite a big shock when we started training for the Mir missions,” says Italian astronaut Paolo Nespoli, 46, a tall, strapping former parachute instructor and engineer. “We found that in Russia, knowledge is power—it’s one of the things you can keep for yourself. And transfer of knowledge meant you lose an edge.”
Nespoli—who as a kid dreamed of becoming an astronaut when he saw “men jumping up and down on the moon”—recalls his Italian army instructors showing up with armloads of charts, which they would distribute to the class. In Star City, he says, “the Russian instructor would come in with charts, hang them up, and use a pointer while discussing them for an hour. Then afterward he’d roll everything back up and go away. We’d ask, ‘Can we have a handout of the charts?’ And he’d say, ‘No.’ All you had were the notes you had taken. And when Russian is not your native language, these long technical names are things you can barely spell out, much less remember.” Nespoli managed to get through anyway.
British-born Mike Foale, a NASA astronaut who also has trained in Russia with cosmonauts, admires this “determination to do something hard” in his European colleagues. He sees the typical ESA flier as “a person who is absolutely willing to uproot his family or himself, and go and travel and live somewhere else to fly in space. At the same time, he’s having to learn Russian as well as having learned English. I’m already impressed.”
The five Europeans currently training at Johnson say that being team players comes naturally for people from interdependent countries who live in close proximity. “We’re all used to working in a multicultural environment,” says Fuglesang, of Sweden. Nespoli adds, “While it’s true that most of the station is American, there is also an international character. And that means you have to make sure that whatever you do, whatever everybody does, you do it in a way that it’s all understandable and compatible with everyone else.” The compromise isn’t all one way either, he says. The presence of ESA astronauts “makes the Americans think outside the box a little bit.”
Charlie Precourt, a former NASA astronaut who is now the agency’s deputy program manager for the space station, echoes Nespoli’s opinion. Working alongside ESA astronauts “has really broadened the perspectives of American astronauts,” he says. “And it’s made us think less parochially about our program.”
It also has helped buffer the occasionally testy relationship between the station’s two senior partners. “Russia is hard for everybody to deal with because it’s full of Russians,” says John Logsdon, director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. “Their overall national culture and their human spaceflight culture are different than the West’s. They’re very hard bargainers, and not great at compromise.”
The Russians, in turn, often look to the Europeans for help with NASA. “When they come out of negotiations with the Americans,” says Ewald, “the first thing they ask is ‘Can you explain what they mean?’ ”
“ESA is quite aware of its bridging role,” says Logsdon, “and having the three main players working in a kind of three-dimensional game is a healthy thing.” Precourt concurs: “The Europeans have developed great understanding of the Russian system, and I find them acting as great go-betweens. They help facilitate the relationship.”
The perception that Europe is third among the station’s six partners (the others are Japan, Canada, and Brazil) has more to do with this vital bridging role and with Europeans’ historic affinity with the United States and Russia than with actual numbers. Japan contributes one and a half times what Europe does to the station’s costs and services. Yet ESA’s profile is much higher than that of NASDA, the Japanese space agency.
Europeans like to think the quality of their space program may also be a factor. “Our work and experiments on Spacelab were very successful,” says Hans Schlegel. “If you compare [areas] where we have expertise, I think we’re pretty close to the level of the Americans, and I think we can contribute a little more than the Russians.” While that may sound boastful, there is some basis for the claim.
Wright, of the British Interplanetary Society, says the purpose of Spacelab was to bring Europe up to U.S. spaceflight standards. The program ended up doing more than that, he believes: “In fact, it pushed [European] manufacturing technology so far that quite a lot of the station modules, particularly the logistics modules, are all being built in Italy now.” In exchange for providing the Raffaello module—a van for delivering cargo to the space station—NASA gave some of its research time on the station to the Italians.
Other researchers, including Americans, are impressed by the experiments ESA-funded scientists have been developing for the space station. Millie Hughes-Fulford, who flew as a scientist-astronaut on a Spacelab mission in 1991 and now heads a cell biology laboratory at the University of California at San Francisco, has designed several shuttle experiments, including one that flew on Columbia’s final flight. “The Europeans have done the best job in [building hardware for] cell biology,” she says. “They’re far and away the leaders.”
It isn’t just in the areas of science and engineering that ESA has earned respect. In Star City, some European astronauts have trained to fly the ascent and entry of the Soyuz in case the Russian commander for some reason can’t. NASA astronaut Foale explains, “They’re flying the left seat, not just [sitting] mid-deck [as they do] on the shuttle. When I go through classes there on the Russian left seat, I’m forever hearing stories about how well the European left-seater understands the Russian systems. In Russia, European astronauts are a big deal, and they’re probably treated with a little more direct support and respect than in this mass of American astronauts.”
On paper, ESA has big plans for its astronauts. In January of last year the agency unveiled the Aurora program, which will be conducted over the next 30 years. Wright describes Aurora as a “very, very long-term plan.” The agenda calls for human as well as robotic exploration of Mars, the moon, and a number of asteroids. The vision is similar to one recently unveiled by the NASA Exploration Team (NEXT), but neither program has much funding or attention right now, and both are relegated to a vague future. Meanwhile, says Wright, “ESA is trying to build an experience base” in case the agency’s astronauts are someday needed for missions that go beyond Earth orbit.
Having crew members on Columbus or just flying in space regularly is therefore crucial to ESA’s long-range plans. But several tall hurdles are in the way. First and most daunting is the scaling back of the space station to accommodate only three astronauts, which NASA did two years ago to control the project’s runaway costs. The Columbia accident reduced the station crew to two people, but only as a temporary measure until the shuttles resume flying. As of today, NASA has no firm plans to increase the crew to the six or seven members that had been agreed on when ESA and the other international partners originally signed up. And until that happens, ESA’s flight opportunities will be so limited that even 15 astronauts may be too many.
Mike Foale says he would have applied to ESA back in the 1980s when he was looking to become an astronaut, but by the time he felt he was qualified, the agency had already announced an indefinite hiring freeze. Fortunately, because he also had U.S. citizenship, he was able to join NASA’s corps instead.
But he has great respect for his colleagues across the ocean. “They complain less,” he says. “I’ve been in shuttle crews where we [NASA astronauts] are all grumbling about this or that. The ESA astronauts aren’t saying a word. This whole business of ‘I deserve this or that,’ they long ago had to get beyond it and learn to say, ‘Well, that isn’t the way the world works. You’re lucky enough to get what you get and should be happy with it.’ ”
Would he become an ESA astronaut today, given the chance? “I’m very glad to have had the NASA opportunity and wouldn’t turn away from that,” he replies with a laugh. “It’s easier to be an astronaut for NASA. So much easier.”
Among its other problems, ESA has had difficulty lately with its Ariane 5 rocket, which blew up after launch last December, stranding science projects like the ambitious Rosetta comet mission, due to leave Earth next year. ESA science managers talk about a crisis, and struggle to find the money to weather the delay. The agency’s astronauts take it all in stride, and wait.