RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
The club of space-faring nations has always been small and exclusive. The Soviet Union put the first human in space in 1961. A month later, the United States sent up Alan Shepherd. Then for more than four decades these two nations were the only ones building spaceships that could blast off with people onboard. China finally joined the club a few years ago with the launch of its first astronaut. And now it looks like Europe could be next. NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce reports.
NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE: The European Space Agency already has an astronaut corps. But French, German and Italian astronauts have to hitch a ride on the space shuttle or Russia's space capsule. For example, German astronaut Hans Schlegel blasted off in February on space shuttle Atlantis. And he talked about that flight during a recent visit to the National Air and Space Museum. He says, sure, it's fine to go up in American ships, but...
Mr. HANS SCHLEGEL (Astronaut): I see the highest potential to help the international cooperation by building a manned vehicle and flying a European manned vehicle.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: After all, Europe now has a huge new lab on the International Space Station. It went up on the same flight as Schlegel. He thinks if Europe has its own lab, why not its own ride up? He says Europe clearly has the money and the technical know-how.
Mr. SCHLEGEL: It's up to the European politicians. It's up to the European people to decide if they want to contribute in that way. My personal opinion is, yes, it's time to do so.
Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)
GREENFIELDBOYCE: And Hans Schlegel isn't the only one in Europe who thinks it's time.
Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)
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GREENFIELDBOYCE: Just a couple of weeks after his flight, Europe launched its biggest, most complicated spacecraft ever - the Jules Verne - an unmanned vehicle the size of a bus that flew itself to the space station to deliver supplies. After it docked safely, the station's crew opened its hatch and floated around inside the cargo ship. That was a big step for the Europeans. Still, the astronauts could never undock that ship and ride it home.
Mr. FRANK POHLEMANN (Astrium Space Transportation, Germany): We don't have a vehicle that can actually bring anything back to Earth.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Frank Pohlemann works for Astrium Space Transportation in Germany, which built the freighter.
POHLEMANN: At the end of its mission it will be loaded with trash from the space station and then it will do a de-orbit burn and burn up in the atmosphere.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: But now that Europe has shown it can get up to the station, it could build on this technology in a logical way: by adding a capsule that could come back down. At first it would just carry cargo home. But if that worked, the space agency could modify it again so it could carry people safely. Pohlemann's company recently set out a plan for doing just that, showing that for a few billion dollars Europe could have its own crew launch vehicle in ten years. And Pohlemann says there's lots of interest.
POHLEMANN: Discussions about having independent access to space for astronauts in Europe are falling onto a much more fruitful ground than they would have a couple of years ago.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: He says it used to be politically incorrect to talk about crew vehicles after an ambitious plan from the 1980s flopped. Europe was going to build a mini space shuttle, but it got the axe during budget cuts after billions were already spent.
Now though, the idea of slowly upgrading an existing vehicle has people talking. The European Space Agency is getting ready for a critical meeting in November. The space ministers from its member states will all be getting together to chart out the course for the agency for the next few years.
Mr. GIOVANNI BIGNAMI (Astrophysicist): In politics, if there is a will there is a way, obviously.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Giovanni Bignami is an astrophysicist who has served as the head of Italy's space agency. He says the aerospace industry in Europe is eager for this to happen, and the public is interested too.
Mr. BIGNAMI: The benefits would be very high, because the possibility of such a project is really very high indeed.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: He personally thinks that Europe should go for it.
Mr. BIGNAMI: I think Europe should. Yes, I do.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: And NASA is also keen on the idea. Bill Gerstenmaier is associate administrator for space operations. He points out that NASA is retiring the aging space shuttle in just two years. The agency is building new rockets and spaceships, but that will take time. So for five years or so the only way to and from the station will be Russia's small capsule. NASA officials would like there to be more options in case something goes wrong with those vehicles.
Mr. WILLIAM GERSTENMAIER (Associate Administrator for Space Operations, NASA): We need a more robust transportation system to and from space station and if other partners can help us by doing that, that's a great thing for us.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: And he knows a lot of his colleagues in Europe want it.
Mr. GERSTENMAIER: I think it's been a desire for them to have their own crew transportation for a period of time. Most countries see the ability to take a crew to space as an important piece of their space architecture and their space plans.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: He says China is continuing to develop its program, and India has expressed an interest too.
Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News.
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