Europe and Russia: Allies in Space Exploration

Article published on March 8, 2004
community published
Article published on March 8, 2004

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

The European Union and Russia are gearing up to consolidate a partnership that could send them back up into space. It is their only chance against the might of NASA.

Financial contributions from the EU and Russia’s technological know-how are the essential components for the creation of a new power in extraterrestrial exploration. In fact, Russia already has a key role in ensuring the continued existence of the International Space Station after the disintegration of the North-American Space Shuttle Columbia in February 2003. Since then, Russia has undertaken to provide a crew for the ISS, a project that involves Europe, the US, Russia, Japan and Canada.

The cosying up of Russia and the EU is also of great strategic importance in fighting fears of the possible detrimental effects of the new American space programme on projects currently being carried out by the international community and, above all, by the ISS – the primary expression of ESA’s space programme –, of which Washington is a key member.

A feasible partnership?

The economic, institutional and political differences between Russia and the EU have undermined faith in the partnership on more than one occasion. Nevertheless, their shared culture and history and their geographical closeness make them natural partners. And the alliance between these two powers is nothing new. It goes back to the Soviet era, and was reinforced when Russia ceased to be a sovereign power.

Today they not only share the objective of getting to Mars but also have other projects in the pipeline. For 2005, there are plans for the Russian spacecraft Soyuz to orbit the European interplanetary station Venera-Express, with a team of European and Russian scientists. Another proposed joint initiative is the Bepi Colombo mission to Mercury, in which Russia is to take a leading role.

Russia's technical prowess

Although Russia is a shadow of its former self, its enviable resources are still its technical skill and its trained scientists and researchers, all of which, despite a shortage of funding, still counts for a lot in the international space community. It is for this reason that Russia has already signed agreements with the EU for the exploration of the universe.

There is no way that, today, Russia can stand alone against any other power. In spite of the fact that it was the first country to send a man into space – Yuri Gagarin, in 1961 – , and that it put a permanent space station into orbit – the aborted MIR –, it now lacks the financial backing for an achievement of this scale.

In fact, Russia’s satellite activity is now practically non-existent and those space activities it is still involved in are financed almost entirely from the sale of its technical expertise. By way of this sole resource, Russia has managed to make itself indispensable to the ISS and has transformed itself into a key member of the EU with its sights set on the conquest of space and, more specifically, of the red planet.

Target: the red planet

With its Mars Express mission, Europe has its feet on Martian soil, figuratively speaking, despite the fact that there is a long time to go before a manned spacecraft lands on the red planet. This has been achieved thanks to ESA’s backing of the project, which is to last two years and cost €300 million.

In recent times the red planet has become a hot destination for the space powers. And Russia doesn’t want to be left behind. Despite abandoning its lunar programme at the end of the ‘70s, it has rejoined the space race with an announcement from the Russian Space Agency (Rossaviakosmos) that they will be embarking on explorations of the moon and of Mars, and they have even gone so far as to say that they might be launching manned missions in the not far distant future.

By the same token, the European Space Agency has also assured us that it will be sending European astronauts to Mars in the year 2030 as part of the European programme ‘Aurora’, which has the not insignificant budget of 1,145 million dollars over the next five years. And it seems highly likely that the missions will be organised jointly with the giant of the East. To begin with, ESA wants to road test a spacecraft on the moon in 2007 so that it can then send another robot, ‘ExoMars’, to the red planet, whose objective will be to find ancient or current signs of life there. In addition, ESA hopes to launch a new project in 2014 to bring Martian material back to Earth, before launching a manned mission. The project could very well involve Russia.

If Europe and Russia also join forces to conquer the red planet, history could be completely upturned and, unlike in the case of the moon, there might just be more than one flag flying when man sets foot on Martian soil.