Europe's pounds 32m race to Moon is grounded

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THE EUROPEAN Space Agency's dreams of beating Nasa in the race to land on the Moon and search for ice were shattered last night when representatives of Esa's 14 member states turned down a request for funding for the EuroMoon 2000 project. The decision, which came after two days of discussions, came as a shock to the Esa scientists, who had assumed the government representatives would rubber-stamp the request for pounds 32m of state funding.

Wubbo Ockles, a Dutch astronaut who was one of the first Europeans to fly on board the Space Shuttle in the 1980s, said he was devastated by the decision. EuroMoon was Mr Ockles own vision, and would have put the Europeans ahead of the Americans for the first time since the start of space exploration.

"We are basically sitting here crying," Mr Ockles said immediately after the meeting in Paris. "I don't know what happened. When the director general [of Esa] asked the question, there was silence. Nobody said anything. Everybody got scared. I was sitting there thinking, 'I can motivate industry, I can motivate the public.' The politicians just don't get the point."

When Nasa's Lunar Prospector detected vast quantities of ice on the Moon earlier this month, there was a massive renewal of interest in Earth's satellite. The EuroMoon team planned to send a small orbiting probe - Lunarsat - to the Moon in 2000 on an Ariane 5 rocket.

A year later, a lander would have been dispatched to the Peak of Eternal Light, a mountain near the lunar south pole, close to the ice deposits detected by the Nasa probe. EuroMoon was to be a joint venture between state and industry - a first for interplanetary exploration.

Mr Ockles said: "When they announced the ice finding I thought there was no way we could lose this one. What made me angry is that these people are supposed to represent the public, and the public is excited by space."