Astronaut, Cosmonaut… Euronaut?

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

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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.

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