Europe must be part of humanity’s long-term exploration of the moon and Mars, a leading European Space Agency (ESA) official has said.
David Parker, who is director of human and robotic exploration at the ESA, said that one of the agency’s key goals is to ensure there is an European astronaut on the moon by the end of the decade.
Speaking at the European Space Conference on Wednesday, he said: “I hope that Europe has leaders ready to step up to this challenge – ESA is ready to serve them and deliver.
“Because if we jump on this train, the legacy will then be to ensure that Europe will also be part of the historic journey when the first astronauts go to Mars.”
His comments come amid concerns that Europe is falling behind in the “space race” as countries like China, Japan and India ramp up their efforts to become space powers.
Mr Parker said: “We must be part of the long-term exploration of the moon and Mars, and therefore, the biggest decision in 2022 is going to be how to ensure the European astronauts are part of the next 20 years of lunar exploration.
“I believe it is our goal – and it is my duty – to ensure that the first European explorer is on the surface of the moon before this decade is out.”
Mr Parker, who served as chief executive of the UK Space agency from 2012-16, said that Europe has “started on a great track” in its space missions.
But he added that the ESA Ministerial Council, the political decision-making body setting the content and financial framework for ESA’s space programmes, had a choice to make ahead of its upcoming meeting in 2022, which is either “be satisfied with being number three, behind the US and China, or, to maintain an upward curve”.
He said: “We’ve got plenty of ideas, but the point is, we can’t stand still because the rest of the world is not.
“We are now, thanks to the support of the (EU) member states, spending 650 million euros a year in exploration – a one third increase, compared to five years ago.
“But Nasa is spending 200 million (US) dollars a week.
“China’s ambitions are clear – we have seen it land a rover on the far side of the moon (and) recover samples from the near side.
“Then next month, it will start building its space station and make a first attempt to land on Mars.
“And they are building huge new rockets to support lunar exploration.”
Mr Parker said that a “long-term political” will is required for the ESA to achieve its ambitious goals for space exploration.
He said: “We need fuel in the tank, we need the investment to continue our growth and to deliver the opportunities because we have the capability to do it in Europe.
“Do we have the political will? That’s the key question for me.”