President Sarkozy and the French (Space) Revolution (Updated)

It seems to be the week for big politics and space exploration. Yesterday, the Universe Today reported that Buzz Aldrin was worried about the future of the politically-driven US space policy; he is currently lobbying US President hopefuls Barack Obama and John McCain to increase NASA funding. On the other side of the pond, French President Nicolas Sarkozy also wants NASA’s European counterpart, ESA, to do better. However, Sarkozy wants to change the face of the ESA into the NASA model by making it politically driven, rather than leaving European bureaucrats to decide ESA priorities. ESA has operated independently from political pressures that often weigh down on space agencies, but Sarkozy is a huge advocate of the US system and believes space exploration should be politically motivated. This is bound to raise a few eyebrows, as the very agency he is promoting is facing some serious political uncertainty…

Update: Thanks to a couple of our readers from France, it has been pointed out that French astronauts are known as spationautes by the nation’s Centre National d’Études Spatiales (the French space agency). I have corrected the mini-discussion at the bottom of this article, reflecting this fact. Thank you Julien and Alexis!

In the 1960’s NASA’s motivation to land a man on the Moon was politically motivated, but in 1986, the UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s decision to pull Britain out of Europe’s manned space program was also politically motivated. Politics and space exploration can go hand-in-hand, but it can also hinder a nation’s development as space policy can be overturned depending who is in office. Worries to one side, President Nicolas Sarkozy believes that France may begin a revolution in the ESA’s outlook for the future. Amidst concerns aired by established space agencies that new space-faring nations like Japan, China and India may overtake Europe’s space agency, Sarkozy has announced radical plans for an accelerated effort for a politically driven push to send man back to the Moon and then to Mars.

Until now, ESA has maintained a more scientific approach to space exploration, but Sarkozy believes this approach has caused ESA to miss opportunities, possibly making Europe redundant in the future of space travel:

President Nicolas Sarkozy has huge aspirations for space (

The United States, Russia, China and Japan would not do what they do in space without a political motivation; Europe has only had a scientific motivation until now. So what we are saying is, let’s get the same chances as the others. Beside the scientific pilot, let us have a political pilot, too, which will be the EU, because there is only the EU that can speak at that level.” – President Sarkozy.

Although this is a bold statement, critics of Sarkozy’s stance point out that the comparison between NASA and ESA is not realistic. After all, NASA spends eight times more on space development than ESA, so Europe would need to allocate huge resources if there were to be a new political direction in ESA science. The 33-year old space agency is run by 17 member-states within the European Union (plus Switzerland, Norway and Canada) so Sarkozy’s aspirations may face setbacks, but the fact remains that France spearheads much of ESA’s operations so the French President’s views will not be ignored.

This is reflected in documents reviewed by the BBC that the French plans for an ESA overhaul are at an advanced stage. Key members of ESA have said that to become a space exploration powerhouse, they need to develop their own means to get European astronauts into space (a task that ESA have had to depend on the US and Russia till now). ESA have developed their own launch site in French Guiana (a major access to space for commercial satellites), have been heavily involved with the International Space Station, developed some of the most advanced robotics to be sent into space (i.e. the Automated Transfer Vehicle) and is currently developing the controversial European global positioning satellite system, Galileo. All is needed is an increase in funding so ESA can push toward manned missions to the Moon and Mars. Perhaps in this case, a politically orientated space agency may be a step in the right direction… until President Sarkozy’s term ends in any case…

Aside: A cosmonaut is a Russian astronaut, a taikonaut is a Chinese astronaut, but what is a French astronaut called? Well, the prefixes “astro-“, “cosmo-” and “taiko-” are pretty much equivolent. So what’s the French for “astro”? Well, “astro” actually… so a French astronaut is called an astronaut (or astronaute). I’m glad I cleared that up…

Update (July 3rd): Actually, the official designated name for a French astronaut is spationaute (according to the Centre National d’Études Spatiales). Thank you to our eagle-eyed French readers for sending me the tip! Now we have astronaut (US), cosmonaut (Russia), taikonaut (China) and spationaute (France). You learn something new every day!

Source: BBC

20 Replies to “President Sarkozy and the French (Space) Revolution (Updated)”

  1. Can see your point Astrofiend, but politics have been a great motivator for space travel in the past – most of the tech we use today wouldn’t be available if there hadn’t been the “my rocket is bigger than yours” attitude (fair play, the Saturn V was one huge firework). Also, NASA’s bedrock is politics, and it’s worked (kinda) over the last 50 years (give or take a lack of drive to get back to the Moon etc.). ESA on the otherhand could risk becoming pointless if other nations begin to become self-sufficient for access to space. Perhaps a good mix of policy and science drive might do the trick… But this is Europe we’re talking about, we aren’t always as friendly as we seem….

    I think I feel a big political article coming on…. erm, well maybe I’ll leave that for a weekend…. 😉

    Cheers, Ian

  2. Sarkozy you moron! You’re going to f__k the ESA up like the pollies have done to NASA!

  3. Sarkozy is a politician. What do you expect! Controlling the ESA is just another agency that will enhance his ego-driven position of power. The world scientific community needs less government influence, not more. Science projects represent way to much “pork opportunity” for the bureaucrat. There is too much tax money spent because of political stupidity.

  4. “Ian O’Neill Says:
    July 1st, 2008 at 7:18 pm ”

    That is true – politics has motivated the majority of technological leaps in space-faring (not to mention providing the overwhelming motivation for those initial steps into space).

    The thing is, the ESA just seems to pick excellent bang-for-the-buck missions with fantastic science return for an eighth of the price – they punch above their weight in almost every mission they approve! Now I’m not saying that NASA doesn’t achieve these things too – merely that, for poor old NASA, funding and funding decisions seem to change every year purely on political whimsy, which seriously hurts the agency.

    Maybe you’re correct, and a bit of political motivation thrown into the mix may be healthy for the agency and its goals. Lets hope so!

  5. I’m not too keen on that move either. The UE is a big machinery, not every gear of which is too well-oiled; dog forbid giving any more say in science investments to e.g. Polish prez Kaczynski.

    Another concern is it could well be yet another step towards public funded but private industries-driven scientific programs. I don’t want to fund _their_ short-term, profit oriented research, any more.

    Still, if it could mean a little more ambition and lots more money – one can only hope at this stage.

    Oh, and while “astronaute” and “cosmonaute” both exist in French, a French astronaut is actually called a “spationaute”.

    Thanks for your collective work, UT is a great site.

  6. Manure happens. President Sarkozy of France has seen the elephant in the room. Politics unfortunately has all the joys of a two edged sword, and should be treated that way. Politics got Americans to the moon, in competition with the USSR. There is now not one politically based competitor but five for europe to worry about. I think that the ESA is not as far behind as it is seen to be. A budget increase and a more political support are advisable since there will be more rather than less space activity, both scientific and human exploration

  7. As a European I would love to see more funding going into the ESA and more political backing but i would hate to see it become completely political. They need to find a balance.

  8. “I’m not too keen on that move either. The EU is a big machinery, not every gear of which is too well-oiled; dog forbid giving any more say in science investments to e.g. Polish prez Kaczynski.”

    I totally agree GuLi, I can already see Kaczynski demanding that it’s got to be a Polish citizen who’s first to step on the moon of all European nations. I hate nationalists.

    Really, I like the way ESA is only guided by scientific priorities right now. Just take the Terrestrial Planet Finder which NASA cancelled. ESA’s Darwin mission is still going strong, because we don’t have a moon programme to fund.

  9. Sarkozy aside, there was a time, in my opinion, that NASA became nothing more (for the most part) than a trucking company… losing its vision (with help from the politicians) of exploration. Unfortunately politics is the driving force returning us to the moon and beyond. It’s a fact of life, but happy we are finally getting back on the right track. ‘We’ only seem to do the great things when given a push and a “we have to be first” mentality by our politicians is almost always the motivating factor…. So be it… Better than being a trucking company.

  10. Space exploration is a neccesity for the human race. It is by far, politically driven. Good for Sarkozy to get the French and the EU into the big picture of real leadership in space.

    If you anti-nationalists don’t like this approach, suffer.

  11. Al Hall and the rest of you are correct. Unfortunately it does require government financing to support space programs. I just have trouble with non-science bureaucrates controling science programs.

  12. If he really wanted a manned mission so badly he could simply request to increase the budget with the condition that part of it is used for manned development and or missions. He simply wants to create more jobs at ariane space …

  13. Indeed. Manned missions at the cost of scientific ones are right out.

    I’d prefer both, but if this is a choice, science wins.

    But perhaps integrating ESA more in the EU can help cultivate a bit more public enthutiasm for the Union.

  14. I’ve now read several pieces on “whether or not to politicize space research.” But I’ve yet to see anyone actually define what that means… It’s one thing to say it, but another entirely to understand what is meant by it?

    Are we saying that space research should be politically motivated rather than scientifically motivated? Is this strictly a funding issue (more money from the government) or is it also an ideological issue (to push a specific agenda, which may or may not be in line with a scientific attitude)?

    If the question is whether politics and ideologies of whoever happens to be in power should be made of paramount importance over actual science, I’d have to disagree. Science shouldn’t be the tool of politicians, used to promote a specific agenda of their choosing. I’m not saying they shouldn’t have a say in the process, just that science should not become a “political” field, usable to push propaganda or an ideology.

    It’s a potentially dangerous precedent to give politicians more power than they already have to either promote or quash ideas.

    The global warming debate has become a bit farcical, more about politics than actual science. Anyone questioning the official doctrine is branded a heretic and ridiculed to some degree. When ideologies become involved, the “science” of the thing can go out the window.

    I guess I’d say that politicians can suggest ideas or directions for future research, but the actual science decisions should still be separate from the politics, with scientists ultimately deciding what is / isn’t good science, or a good proposition for the next direction of research.

  15. There is not cold war anymore, these times were great for a politic-driven space agency, now is a curse

    Esa is doing it well, a scientific interested agency that can link different states under the EU flag to seed a common politic interest

    Under the sarkozy view, ESA will like an agency under the different politic interests/pressures from the goverments on turn, at the end it will breake the ESA hegemony, and will turn in a french agency or into a french vs britts vs germans vs the rest mess in the best case

    Agree that ESA needs a new policy, but it should come from the *ESA itself* .Polititians should be a tool for the ESA, but ESA should not be a tool for polititians

  16. ESA should develop a remote-controlled humanoid robot, that replaces humans in the international space station. Let us call it a Robonaut.
    An entire room should be dedicated to this where a human controller is strapped on a device with FORCE FEEDBACK, floating above the ground like a real astronaut.
    Such a robonaut could be launched as cargo in the current ATV, and would do exactly the same as an astronaut.
    ESA would then save on fuel because it wouldn’t have to launch that many sardines in a can.

    It is too soon for human space flight. Everything should be done with robots for now. Everything on the moon can be done radio-controlled, almost real-time.

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