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.