NASA Administrator Michael Griffin encouraged Europe on Thursday to develop its own manned spaceship, giving the world — and particularly the United States — another way of getting to the International Space Station.
Europe became "a full-fledged space power" when flight controllers at a European Space Agency center guided an unmanned cargo ship, called Jules Verne, to the International Space Station in April, successfully delivering food, water and clothes, he said.
Griffin said "it would be a small step" to develop that technology into "an independent European human spaceflight capability"
"We welcome the development of independent European capabilities in space to provide redundant systems in the event of failure of any one partner's capabilities," he told a gathering of European researchers and space executives at the French parliament.
The space station will need to rely on these unmanned spacecraft for supplies, tools and science experiments once NASA's space shuttles stop flying in 2010. NASA's next-generation spacecraft, the Orion capsule, won't be ready for manned flight until 2015.
In the meantime, NASA will have to pay hundreds of millions of dollars to Russia for a lift to the space station.
Arianespace Marketing Director Philippe Berterottiere, whose 57-meter (187-foot) high unmanned Ariane 5 rocket launched the Jules Verne, told The Associated Press it would be "quite easy" to develop a manned capsule, with development costs of around euro2-3 billion (US$3-4.5 billion).
Griffin told journalists he is "very concerned" about the impending lack of a U.S. shuttle. He said the situation differs from the six-year gap between the last Apollo flight in 1975 and the first shuttle flight in 1981 because "the advanced nations of the world now have a substantial space asset" to maintain and protect: the International Space Station.
Griffin also encouraged Europe to join the U.S. in its Mars exploration plans. French President Nicolas Sarkozy said in February he wants Europe to work with the United States on the project.
NASA has been working since 2005 on President George W. Bush's plan to return to the moon by 2020 and then travel on to Mars, though public response has been tepid.
"Exploring the Moon, and eventually Mars, will be a challenging task, one that NASA has neither the resources nor the desire to do alone," Griffin said.
"I am personally committed to the idea that this enterprise should be international in scope."
French Prime Minister Francois Fillon, in a note to the space conference, said France will use its presidency of the European Union, starting next month, to move the European space project forward, but he was short on details.
French Research Minister Valerie Pecresse said Europe should set its priorities in coming months. Research ministers from the 17 European countries belonging to the Paris-based European Space Agency will meet in November.
Budget could be a sticking point for European nations struggling to tame their deficits.
Yannick d'Escatha, head of the French space agency CNES, said the combined European budgets for space amount to around euro6 billion ($9.24 billion) a year. That compares with NASA's annual $17 billion budget.
While Griffin has long encouraged Europeans to join NASA's space exploration program to send people back to the moon and then on to Mars, his latest remarks mark a step up in encouraging the Europeans' space exploration with their own ship to take people into space, said John Logsdon, director of space policy at George Washington University.
"Having more capability to get to orbit and having the second capability by an ally rather than the tense relationship with China or Russia would be a positive thing," Logsdon said.
It would be especially useful if the European ship is ready for the five-year gap when space shuttles are grounded in 2010, he said. But, he added that it was highly unlikely that the Europeans can get a human-rated ship to space "in time to be much of a help" for that gap.
Associated Press Science writer Seth Borenstein in Washington contributed to this report.