Compared to the American space shuttle's feats, the event seemed ordinary: The Ariane 3 rocket blasted off last Saturday from Kourou on the swampy coast of French Guiana, released its load, and fell back to earth.
But in many ways, the achievement was extraordinary. After early failures, it was the sixth consecutive success for a European rocket. Moreover, unlike older models, the new, larger Ariane 3 carried two satellites at once - confirming Europe as a contender in the drive to commercialize space.
''Before, all anyone would talk about was the shuttle,'' says Annie Verganti of Arianespace, the French-led consortium of banks and manufacturers from 11 Western European countries. ''Wherever we go now, we are welcomed.''
The success of Ariane 3 was crucial. It assured the Europeans they would be able to carry out their contracts to launch 28 commercial satellites in the next three years, almost $900 million worth of business.
It also encourages the Europeans to beef up their space program. The European Space Agency (ESA) is developing an advanced rocket engine and a combination space laboratory and factory. The French, long leaders of Europe's space effort, are even considering developing a European manned space shuttle and space station not unlike what the US is planning.
But a big question remains. Will the Europeans cooperate with the US? Or will they continue to emphasize independence?
''Ariane has changed the whole picture,'' says Jean-Marie Luton, deputy director of France's space research center, the Centre Nationale d'Etudes Spatiales (CNES). ''Now Europe has to fix its new objectives.''
Many of the decisions must be made soon. Last spring NASA official James Beggs toured European capitals with a proposal to cooperate on America's planned space station. He said he would like the Europeans to contribute about 20 percent of development costs, some $2 billion. He reported there was ''significant interest'' in his offer.
But the Europeans have reservations. Money is one problem. This year the European Space Agency is spending $850 million. Much more will be needed for the space station project, and the Europeans are already strapped by budget deficits and weak economies.
To convince them to spend, the United States will have to offer a better cooperation deal than in the past. During the 1970s, the Europeans spent $750 million designing and building Spacelab, the unmanned vehicle sent into space last year aboard the shuttle. But by agreement, Spacelab became US property after its maiden voyage.
This time, the Europeans are demanding a fuller partnership. They want to retain ownership of what they build and have the right to dock their rockets at the station.
While debating the US proposal, the Europeans have made two decisions that could facilitate cooperation or a new push to space independence.
West Germany has begun construction of ''Columbus,'' a series of modular units for scientific experiments or pioneering space manufacturing. Unlike Spacelab, which cannot stay in space more than two weeks and must be linked to the shuttle, these modules are designed to orbit for months at a time.
The French are working on an independent European space station. They are developing a powerful new engine, fueled by liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen, that could be fitted onto a small space ''tug'' code-named Hermes, which would ferry people or materials to a space station.
''The two decisions show we are really going to become autonomous in space,'' says CNES's Luton. ''This doesn't rule out cooperation, but it means that little by little Europe will dispose its own space technology in every field.''