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Astronaut, Cosmonaut... Euronaut?

Space exploration may come naturally to Europeans, but it doesn't come easily.

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.”

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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.

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