Science: France revels in its cosmic power

The 100th Ariane rocket, jewel in the crown of the European space programme, will lift off from Guyana today. Once scorned, the French-led project is now the most commercially succesful space programme in the world. Where does France - the second great power in the cosmos - (boldly) go from here? To Mars maybe, as John Lichfield reports.
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The Russians no longer count. The Japanese and Chinese are not yet significant players. As the millennium ends, there are only two real powers in space. The first is hampered by statist considerations, romantic obsessions, special interest lobbies and political in-fighting. The other is commercially successful, oriented to the market, technically innovative and, under its new government, determined to be more of all three.

The first country is the United States; the second is France. The traditional earthly roles of the two countries are reversed, it seems, once you leave the atmosphere.

The 100th Ariane launch today is a political milestone. The Ariane programme - French-led, French based and 30 per cent French-funded - now holds 60 per cent of the world market in commercial satellite launches. Ariane makes a profit (although the wider French and European space programmes are a different story).

Technologically, there is an even more significant date for France and Europe next month with the second attempt to launch one of the new generation of Ariane V rockets. The first launch last June was a costly debacle. If the new, much larger, technically advanced type of Ariane goes up successfully in mid-October, Europe will be set to dominate the commercial satellite- hoisting business into the next century.

Despite the Maastricht- enforced squeeze on public spending, the new Socialist-led government in France is deeply committed to its pounds 1.2bn a year space programme (less than one-tenth the size of America's but three time as big as Russia's). The Minister for Education and Technology, Claude Allegre, is a geo-scientist of international renown. He believes it is time for France to assert its relative cosmic strength, within Europe and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa).

France wants radical changes in the European Space Agency (ESA), in which Britain plays a relatively small role (6.7 per cent of the budget, compared to 31 per cent for France and 25 per cent for Germany). Essentially, he wants most ESA projects delegated to groups of nations, like the successful Ariane programme. This might be awkward for aerospace companies in the junior partner countries like Britain.

Mr Allegre has also alarmed Washington by suggesting he might abandon, or reduce, France's commitment to the grandiose scheme to build a permanent international orbiting space station. He believes the last, centre-right, French government made a mistake in allowing itself to be "tethered" to an American-led international space policy in this way.

In his opinion, manned space flight is not the last human frontier; it is a costly cul-de-sac. It is precisely because France and Europe limited itself to affordable, commercially useful, albeit old-fashioned, rocket launches that Ariane has been such a success. The Space Shuttle - even without the Challenger disaster - has proved an enormously costly exercise. Driven by military and industrial lobbies, it has produced few commercial, scientific or technological benefits.

"With the incidents on Mir, a lot of people have actually started to ask `what exactly are they doing up there?'," Mr Allegre said in an interview with L'Express last week. "We are paying a lot of money to watch astronauts climb from one capsule to another."

(None the less, France's most experienced astronaut, General Jean-Loup Chretien, 59, will go up with the Space Shuttle Atlantis tomorrow, in the latest mission to repair Mir).

Reading between the lines of Mr Allegre's interview - and comments by the new head of the French space centre, Gerard Brachet - France will not sever its links with the planned new international space station. It will take part in the station's construction but is refusing to commit itself to the manned space activities which will follow.

France will instead use its bargaining position with the US to seek a large role in the kind of unmanned, remotely-controlled space exploration which Mr Allegre believes will prove commercially and scientifically useful in developing the technologies of the future. In particular, France wants a share of the Martian action - for Europe, and especially for itself.

"It is unthinkable that we should be left out. That's the stuff of people's dreams," said Mr Allegre. "We aren't just going to sit back and watch the exploration of Mars."

All depends on the success of Ariane V, which is supposed to be capable of lifting complex vehicles into space - cheaply. If so, France hopes to persuade the US to send up new generations of American-European Martian probes from Guyana, not Florida. This may be asking a lot; but the days are gone when Americans laughed at French pretensions in space.