I Want to Break Free

Article published on Jan. 29, 2004
community published
Article published on Jan. 29, 2004

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

Europe has found water on Mars. But we shouldn’t delude ourselves: we won’t be able to explore space on our own.

The 23rd January was a winter’s day like any other in Europe. The Commission was at loggerheads with the finance ministers, an EU diplomat let slip to the media that the foreign ministers would “consider” an arms embargo against China and in Sweden it was announced that a “Euro-sceptic party” was soon to be founded. That day, the only sign of successful enlargement to the east was meteorological: a snowstorm was raging over Istanbul. In short, Europe was serving up the usual, sad scenario of institutional trench warfare, misguided foreign policy and a Union its citizens regard as increasingly out of touch.

“Europe should be proud of itself”

Not all of it, you understand. In the unassuming German village of Darmstadt a group of scientists are putting up a fight against the grim reality of everyday life in the EU. On the morning of this memorable day, researchers from the European Space Agency (ESA) called a press conference to announce a scientific sensation: cameras on the “Mars Express” probe had captured the first scientific proof of the existence of water ice at the Red Planet’s South Pole.

This discovery is indeed a resounding European success story. The OMEGA spectrometer that discovered the water ice is overseen by French researcher Jean-Pierre Bibring; the high-performance HRSC camera – that will photograph the entire planet in the coming years – was developed in Germany. And the Flight Operations Director of Mars Express, Michael McKay, is from Northern Ireland. The first to spot that there was political capital to be made out of this exemplary European collaboration was German Federal Minister for Education and Research, Edelgard Bulmahn, when she proclaimed, “Europe should be proud of itself”.

Exemplary collaboration

So is Europe gaining ground? On January 23rd, the much longed-for sense of European pride must have overwhelmed a good many people. For it is just two weeks since George W. Bush announced a new American space programme; now, on its first independent mission to Mars, Europe has actually nosed ahead of the Americans. The European ‘Galileo programme’, which offers an alternative to the American GPS based system, is evidence of Europe increasingly breaking free from America. Following China, Brazil has now also elected to come on board Galileo. For foreign ministers, that propound the concept of a multipolar world order in the EU, these are indeed halcyon days. Maybe the Americans, source of such unrelenting hassle on planet Earth, can finally be outdone in the infinite expanse of outer space.

Yet this impression is deceptive. For in matters of space travel international collaboration is long established and it offers many lessons for national governments. For example, the ground station “Marsis” is the product of cooperation between the Italians and NASA. And as no signals have been received from either “Spirit” or “Beagle 2”, the Europeans are receiving help from the NASA satellite “Mars Odyssey”. But, above all, the collaboration on the International Space Station (ISS) shows that the financial and technological strains associated with space exploration are too great for any one power to bear single-handedly.

The success of a project that involved nigh on 600 European scientists is to be welcomed. Yet now is not the time for us to get completely carried away by sudden strident self-confidence. Because the dream of one day being able to find raw materials on Mars is one shared by all mankind. Europe has chalked up a great success on the road to its realisation. We ought to let others share the spoils.