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Europe opts for more autonomy in space. Tensions with US spur new projects and set the stage for competition

As the space program in the United States faces its greatest challenges since Sputnik, new tensions have developed in the US-West European collaboration on space ventures. The result, observers say, may be to strengthen the move in Europe away from dependence on the US, especially in the important area of manned missions. Frustration at having to rely on the US to put people into orbit, a sense of disillusionment with the US space program, and a feeling that Europe has the technological strength to increase its own efforts are all factors pushing the region toward greater space autonomy.

Independence, however, has a price, and West European governments will have to boost substantially their spending on space technology.

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Western Europe has its own Ariane rocket to launch satellites and other unmanned payloads, but relies on the US space shuttle for manned projects. The grounding of the shuttle fleet after the Challenger explosion in January will delay European programs dependent on the shuttle for an uncertain period.

Shuttle flights are planned to resume in 1988, but they are likely to be reserved largely for US government missions, such as the launching of military satellites or ``star wars'' experiments. Flights for European missions -- such as scientific studies on board Spacelab, a European-developed orbiting laboratory carried aloft by the shuttle -- may be difficult to come by.

``The Challenger explosion has made more people think NASA may not be the best, most reliable organization to deal with,'' says Rodney Buckland, a British space consultant. ``The events of the past few months have clarified the arguments over the degree to which Europe should aim for autonomy in space.''

Other observers say that Europe has not needed this extra stimulus to push for a greater role. ``It is a matter of natural evolution that Europe should try to do more big things in space by itself,'' says Jacques Collet, an official at the Paris-based European Space Agency (ESA), the 11-nation organization that coordinates such ventures.

Western Europe has, by US standards, a fairly modest space program, with a total annual expenditure of about $2 billion. Roughly half goes to ESA projects, and the rest is spent by individual countries on their own programs. NASA, by comparison, has an annual budget of some $8 billion, and yearly Pentagon spending on space totals roughly $10 billion.

In January 1985, ESA nations agreed to new projects aimed at complete independence from the US some time after the year 2000. The ESA budget is projected to grow by about 60 percent by the early 1990s.

The new projects envisioned by ESA focus on space transportation. First, the agency plans to spend $2 billion to redesign the Ariane rocket so that it can lift heavier satellites. To reduce dependence on the US for manned missions, ESA is considering a $1.5 billion plan to build Hermes, a manned vehicle that looks like a miniature version of the shuttle. Hermes -- which could be ready by l996 or '97 -- would be launched by the new version of Ariane to take people into space for jobs such as experiments in zero-gravity materials-processing.

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The third European project -- Columbus -- is a $2 billion effort to design a manned space module that would plug into the permanent space station that the US hopes to build by the mid 1990s. But from the European perspective, it is also seen as a precursor to a wholly European-operated space station, which could see service in the first decade of the next century.

Columbus has encountered some problems because of the twin goals of the project and because, in the Challenger aftermath, NASA's space station is likely to be delayed, reduced in scope, or possibly both. That has led to confusion on both sides of the Atlantic as to how the development of the Columbus module is to fit into the schedule for the station.

More fundamentally, NASA and ESA have had difficult negotiations over Europe's role in space station development. While the US has agreed to broad functions for the other international partners in the venture -- Japan and Canada -- discussions with ESA have foundered on two counts.

ESA wanted Columbus to be detachable from the core of the station -- a clue to its intentions to develop the module as the first stage in an independent orbiting outpost. NASA ruled out a ``wandering'' Columbus. Reluctantly, the Europeans agreed to toe the NASA line, and have stated that they will simply study a detachable base.

A still unresolved problem is what Columbus will be used for. NASA says it should house only life-sciences experiments, in fields that look rather unglamorous -- how plants grow in low gravity, for example. ESA feels that this could freeze Europe out of potentially lucrative work in low-gravity materials processing, to produce substances such as defect-free semiconductors or new alloys. It wants a broader role for Columbus.

Discussions are still going on. Failure to reach a conclusion satisfactory to Europeans could drive them further toward an independent role in space activities.