PARIS — Officials professed optimism Wednesday about the future of the European manned space program, but there was little doubt that the American Challenger catastrophe would revive old doubts and reservations about the wisdom of spending enormous sums in Europe to put a man in space before the end of the century.
"We will take into consideration the conclusions of the Americans," France's minister of research and technology, Hubert Curien, said, "but we will continue. Risk is a part of all adventures, especially those in space."
The French are the financiers and the most important boosters of the European Space Agency's program to build a new and more powerful Ariane rocket to launch a manned space shuttle known as Hermes into space by 1995. Other European governments have accepted the idea in principle but have delayed committing any funds to it.
New Safety Concerns
Noting that Tuesday's accident in the United States probably means that new concerns for safety will drive up the cost of the Hermes, the French financial daily Les Echos said: "This will cool off our partners."
It has been estimated that the cost of developing the first Hermes will be $1.5 billion.
Whatever impact it has on the European manned space program in the long run, the American accident is sure to enhance the European unmanned space program in the short run. The European rocket Ariane has proven a stiff competitor to the U.S. space shuttle in the market for launching satellites. By the end of 1984, the Ariane had captured 40% of the market. By mid-1985, orders or options had been placed for more than 40 Ariane launchings.
Ironically, Frederic d'Allest, the director of the French space program and the managing director of Arianespace, the company that manufactures the Ariane, had been scheduled to appear at a news conference Wednesday to describe recent achievements and future plans for Ariane. He canceled it as soon as he heard the news of the accident.
Claude Sanchez, an Arianespace spokesman, said d'Allest felt it would have been indecent to talk about the competition and plans at such a time.
'Same Space Family'
"Arianespace stands shoulder to shoulder with NASA," Sanchez said, referring to the United States' National Aeronautics and Space Administration. "We belong to the same space family."
Nevertheless, the Ariane program is sure to benefit commercially from the temporary suspension of the American space shuttle program.
As part of the show of optimism here, officials appeared intent on creating the impression that the Hermes space shuttle is unlikely to suffer the same fate as the Challenger. Under the program, a new Ariane 5 rocket, which will cost an estimated $2.6 billion, will be developed by 1995. It will have the power to launch the Hermes, which will carry from two to six astronauts and be about half the size of the U.S. space shuttle.
Bernard Deloffre, the Hermes program director at Aeriospatiale, the prime contractor, said the Hermes would probably have an advantage over the U.S. space shuttle in an emergency during launching.
"Hermes would be a little better placed," he said, "because it would sit vertically on top of the Ariane launcher and could thus be more easily separated in case of an accident."
Jean Marie Luton, deputy director of the French space agency, also talked of some measures that might be taken to protect the Hermes in case of an accident during the first moments of launch. He said it was possible to envisage a system of ejecting the astronauts or their cabin in case of trouble.
Several years ago, France was among those European governments that looked on manned spaceflights as too expensive, wasteful and showy for Europe. But the French changed their minds, trained two astronauts to go into space on Soviet and American spaceflights and drew up the plans for the Hermes shuttle.
While other European governments that belong to the European Space Agency approved the plans in principle, they have so far refused to contribute to its financing, and the American accident will probably harden their reluctance.
Despite its financial rebuff from its partners, France decided to go ahead with the Hermes last year and, according to all public statements since the accident, will continue.