Astronaut, Cosmonaut… Euronaut?

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

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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.”

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