Almost unnoticed, Western Europe has entered space, seizing a considerable share of the lucrative market for the launching of communications and weather satellites. On its drawing boards are space shuttles to compete with those of the United States.
The British are developing an unmanned shuttle designed to take off like an airplane and fly into space, cutting launch costs, they say, by 90%. Its developers say it could be manned eventually.
The French have a manned shuttle in the works--smaller than the American versions, but one they hope will keep men in high orbit for 30 days.
No longer is space race a contest between the United States and the Soviet Union only.
A U.S. space official has acknowledged this.
"I've got to be a little bit pessimistic about our ability to hold the lion's share of the market in the future," James M. Beggs, administrator of the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration, told a congressional hearing in Washington earlier in the year.
"All I can tell you is that our position in the market has deteriorated in the past year. In the past 14 months in the commercial launch area, we won five and they (Western Europeans) won five and nobody else won any."
Beggs spoke only a few days after government ministers from 11 member nations of the European Space Agency (ESA) met in Rome and decided to increase the agency's budget 70% to $1.2 billion by 1989, build a more powerful launcher and join in a U.S. plan for a permanent space station by the early 1990s.
The ESA's budget is a far cry from the $7.5 billion spent by NASA last year, but it represents only a part of what Western Europe is spending because many countries also have separate programs.
West Germany, for example, contributes $140 million to the ESA while spending nearly the same amount on its own programs.
Other ESA members are Belgium, Britain, Denmark, France, Ireland, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland. Norway and Austria are associate members and Canada has a limited cooperation agreement.
"ESA is a success story, a lusty 10-year-old that has survived recessions and political squabbles to give Europe a niche of its own in space," said the British magazine The Economist.
The ESA was founded in 1975 when two smaller European space agencies were combined into an unusual alliance to promote the peaceful use of space.
What makes it unusual is that each nation must contribute to the agency's "mandatory" budget but then can decide how much money to put into individual projects. So far, the ESA has spent more than $6 billion in space, led by West Germany, France, Italy and Britain, officials said.
The workhorse of the ESA has been the French-led Ariane-series of rockets, which are launched from a space center in Kourou in the swampy jungles of French Guiana on South America's northeast shoulder.
France, which in 1965 became the third nation to achieve a space launch, has put up 60% of the funds for the Ariane 1 through 4 launcher programs.
Since joining the space race, Western Europe has put 19 satellites into orbit. The United States has sent up 1,144 and the Soviet Union 2,273.
Those numbers are deceptive, though. Since 1984, the ESA has had a quarter of the total commercial market, with six satellites compared with 18 for the United States.
In addition, Arianespace Inc., a consortium of European aerospace companies, banks and the French space agency, says it has firm contracts for 32 launches worth nearly $900 million and options for 19 more missions.
One thing that makes NASA worried is that the Ariane will soon be charging less than it for satellite launches.
The U.S. space shuttle's price per an average satellite is expected to hit $38 million next year while the Ariane's price ranges from $25 million to $30 million.
Although the Ariane 3 cannot carry nearly as large a payload as the U.S. shuttle, it can put satellites directly into geosynchronous orbit--meaning the satellite remains stationary above one point on earth. Satellites from the shuttle have to be boosted up to the 22,200 mile height of that orbit.
Price vs. Service
NASA officials argue that despite the price, the shuttle is a better deal because U.S. astronauts can check out, refuel and repair satellites.
Still, the Ariane continues to attract customers away from NASA.
On Feb. 8, an Ariane 3 successfully launched the first Arab satellite and the first Brazilian satellite.
The Arab satellite was built by Aerospatiale, the French-owned aerospace group--the first time a non-American company was selected to be the main contractor for an international satellite program.
One of the major decisions taken at the ESA meeting in Rome was to begin a $2.1 billion project to develop an Ariane 5 launcher that will more than triple ESA's payload of 15 metric tons.
Joining in Station
A second major decision was to accept a U.S. invitation to participate in a $10 billion permanent space station to be launched in the early 1990s.
The ESA, led by West Germany and Italy, will put up $2 billion for a project called Columbus. It will be a separate part of the station that could be detached later to form the basis of an independent European space station.
Heinz Riesenhuber, West Germany's minister of research and technology, said ESA's goals of autonomy and cooperation with the United States are not contradictory.
"You cannot have a good partnership if you do not have strong programs of your own," he said.
Officials speaking privately in West Germany said the project would also help West Europeans gain access to technology that the United States might otherwise refuse to share because of fear that it might fall into Soviet hands.
West Europeans complained that the United States held back on information the last time they tried a joint project, in 1983. That was the Spacelab, a $1 billion manned science laboratory carried aboard the U.S. Shuttle Columbia with a West German scientist on board.
As a result, the final decision on ESA's Columbus depends on the results of a two-year feasibility study to design a mission "in which there is no pointless competition or dangerous subordination of one (country) to the other," said Luigi Granelli, Italy's minister for scientific and technological research.
Western Europe is also cooperating in the Soviet Union's space programs.
France is a major partner in the Vega missions the Soviets launched in December to probe Venus and Halley's Comet, and more than 500 French personnel go to the Soviet Union each year to work on various projects.
Also, a French cosmonaut, Jean-Loup Chretien, was the first man from outside the Soviet Bloc to go into space aboard a Soviet spacecraft--the Soyuz T-6 in June 1982.
Dr. David Stanley, director of the British computer firm Logica, said the U.S.-led space station will make "an unprecedented impact on science."
"It will give us unique facilities for making drugs, semiconductor crystals, astronomical observations, zero-gravity experiments and other work," he said.
Eurospace, a group of European aerospace companies and banks, estimates that the future market for such products could be as much as $7 billion a year.
Britain is also planning to develop a separate unmanned space platform as part of Columbus--a sign that it will no longer be what the Economist has called "a persistent miser" in space programs.
In fact, the British government recently announced the creation of a National Space Center to coordinate its $90 million space effort.
"We are renewing our commitment to space," Geoffrey Pattie, the minister in charge of space in the British Trade Department, said.
"We are prepared to envisage increasing our budget by 50% in two years' time and that's another strong indication of our effort."