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Commencing countdown, engines on … or not

It’s been a big last few weeks for the venerable European Space Agency (ESA), the organization charged with advancing the cause of space travel throughout the continent. Currently, everyone who’s anyone in the European air and space industries is at the prestigious Paris Air Show, which runs through June 21, and just last month the ESA selected its latest crop of rookie astronaut candidates, including two Italians, a Frenchman, a German, a Dane and an Englishman, Tim Peake, who has been dubbed “Major Tim” by the excited U.K. press.

The six would-be astronauts are the first new group of ESA trainees since way back in 1992, making their selection a very big honor. There’s just one small catch: Europe has no way of getting them into space. In fact, one of the first parts of their training seems to be hanging out at the Paris Air Show to see if they can somehow wheedle a ride out of some other space-faring nation.

The problem for the Europeans is that none of the astronauts will be ready for a mission until at least 2012, by which time the seven-person American space shuttles will have been retired and scrapped (they are scheduled to be decommissioned next year), leaving just the three-person Russian Soyuz as a means of transporting astronauts to the international space station.

Europe, as a member of the space station club, is entitled to one six-month residency at the station every two years, but as the U.S. and Russia are the major players in the project, they rightfully get first dibs on the Soyuz seats.

This has created quite a flap in England, where people have been wondering if Major Tim and his cohorts will ever make it into space. Fortunately, their new boss, ESA chief Jean-Jacques Dordain, swore there was no chance of anyone being left on the ground, declaring, “They will all fly, and this is a commitment we have to them.”

Those words must be music to the ears of the prospective astronauts, but I imagine they’re still wondering how Mr. Dordain plans to make his pronouncements a reality. Without some sort of intervention, it could be decades before all six make it up to the space station.

In the case of Major Tim, who is currently 37, he’ll be 40 before he’s even ready to fly. Then, assuming the ESA is somehow able to get one ride on Soyuz every two years, which isn’t terribly likely, it would be another 12 years before the final European gets into space. If Major Tim has to go last, he’ll be a ripe old 52 before he ever launches. Sure, there have been older astronauts; John Glenn was 77 when he rode on the space shuttle in 1998, but he’s John Glenn; he’s like the Chuck Norris of space flight, not some mincing European greenhorn.

To its credit, the ESA has been hard at work trying to come up with a plan to get its people into space. Actually, “hard at work” is probably giving the ESA a little too much credit, but at least they’ve come up with a couple of proposals. The first idea would be to try to buy some seats from the Russians that would normally be reserved for cosmonauts. The second idea would have the ESA working closely with Canada and Japan, whose astronauts face a similar predicament, to buy an additional Soyuz.

If neither of those ideas pans out, there may still be hope for the European astronauts. One of the big developments so far at the Paris Air Show is that an Italian company, Thales Alenia Space, has signed a contract to build a prototype of a new re-entry craft called the Intermediate Experimental Vehicle (IXV). If all goes right, the IXV could make its first test flight in 2012 and be ready for manned voyages a few years later, which could significantly shorten the timetable for Major Tim and his mates to make it into space.

There is a chance that the IXV project could backfire somewhat, however. The ESA currently has about 100 million euros in its budget. That’s enough to build the IXV, but it will cost an additional 30 million euros to carry out a launch and flight, meaning that if the ESA member nations don’t kick in some more money, Major Tim and friends, in addition to not getting to fly, might not even get paid.

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06 2009

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