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One Giant Leap for Europe?

In space no one can hear you scream. But they may be able to hear you moan about debt crises and squabble over how to keep your astronautical ambitions from crashing back down to Earth.

Dieter Spannknebel | The Image Bank | Getty Images

That's what members of the European Space Agency were doing when they gathered in the Italian city of Naples this week to decide how to spend a $13 billion, three-year budget provided by countries whose cash-strapped citizens are more likely to be contemplating the gutter than the stars.

Science ministers from the ESA's 20 member countries on Wednesday decided to upgrade Europe's Ariane 5 rocket while developing a replacement. The agency's director general Jeans-Jacques Dordain told reporters that the ESA will first build a modified version of the Ariane 5, to be called the Ariane ME, before launching the Ariane 6 in a decade.

The agency has maintained lofty ambitions even with austerity cooling its jets: ahead of the two-day meeting, Dordain was drumming up support for a venture that could put Europeans on the moon by 2020. Although he had wanted more money for his agency, he said the $13 billion was a good target that was in line with previous commitments.

But this being Europe — a continent whose noble project to unite starkly different economies has recently begun to unravel — it should be no surprise that choosing space exploration goals for the next four years proved to be a tricky bit of rocket science.

Although Europe's equivalent of NASA is managed independently of the European Union, its discussions on how to carve up the money echoed some of the EU's political clashes — in more ways than one.

One proposed name for the new rocket checked a certain German chancellor: the Advanced Next Generation European Launcher, sometimes referred to as Angela.

Financial concerns clearly weighed heavily ahead of the Naples meeting. The ESA's future budget represents a post-inflationary decrease on previous spreadsheets that had already been trimmed to reflect straitened conditions.

The agency diverted some of its money into a propaganda exercise to justify its existence. A slick video package released earlier this month tried to forestall criticism by tackling one of the biggest questions head on.

"In today's difficult economic climate, it might be easy to think that space programs are not worth the money they cost," the video suggests. It goes on to mention that the ESA and the companies that keep it ticking over employ more than 330,000 Europeans.

Every dollar invested into ESA, it says, is repaid to Europeans several times over in terms of technological advancements and improvements to health care and the environment. "Is space a good investment for Europe?" it asks. "Absolutely!"

ESA's key backers were in agreement. Britain, which is currently trying to rein in its financial commitments to the EU, opened the conference with a surprise announcement it was increasing its contribution by 25 percent to $383 million.

The UK said it would provide $25 million of that to a project that will provide the propulsion unit for NASA's new manned capsule, Orion — ESA's first involvement in developing a crew transport vehicle.

Britain's input had previously fallen well below the $1.8 billion, or 35 percent of overall budget, jointly contributed by France and Germany.

Italy is another major contributor — a country whose parlous finances have led some to question why European countries on the brink of bankruptcy should be investing in costly space exploration projects.

The UK's tabloid Sun newspaper this week questioned why "basket-case" Italy, "riot-hit" Spain and "bailed-out" Portugal were pouring millions into an ESA project to send a rocket to Mars. "Euro lunatics blow $433m on Mars trip."

Mars isn't ESA's only goal. Ministers were also in Naples to wrangle over how much to invest in Earth observation, navigation and telecommunications projects.

But the debate over the venerable Ariane launching program took center stage, pitting Europe's space powerhouses, Germany and France, against each other.

The two-stage rocket system for launching payloads such as satellites into orbit is ESA's biggest money spinner. Now in its fifth generation, the rocket has proved to be one of the world's most reliable and commercially successful launching vehicles.

But Ariane is facing stiff competition as emerging space powers such as Brazil, India and China begin to eye its market. Commercial projects such as SpaceX's Falcon launch vehicle and Richard Branson's planned Virgin Galactic cargo venture could also poach business.

Germany, home to Ariane 5's prime contractor, Astrium, advocated modifying the rocket, to be called the Ariane 5ME (Mid-Life Evolution), to give it a short-lived boost.

France favored building an entirely new rocket with a flexible payload capacity. The French CNES space agency had positioned itself at the front of the line to pick up the contract.

Germany largely won. The Ariane ME is expected to fly in 2017. Its upper-stage Vinci engine will also be used on the new Ariane 6. However, ESA also met French concerns by agreeing to study how to implement the future vehicle, which will be decided at another meeting in 2014.

The agency hopes to launch the new rocket by 2021.

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