Saturday, March 3, 2007

Germany joins the space race in a giant leap of confidence

Germany is planning to land an unmanned craft on the Moon in an ambitious revival of a dream that has haunted the nation since the 1930s.

“Why shouldn’t we do it alone?” asks Walter Doellinger, director of the German Air and Space Centre. “We have the technology, we have the know-how and we have the experience with robots.”

There have been clear signals from the German Government, led by the Chancellor, Angela Merkel, who is a physicist, that it is willing to put up €300 million (£202 million) over five years for the initial funding of the Lunar Exploration Orbiter.

It is a sign of the new self-confidence of Germany, and one that will attract controversy: it was under the Nazis that German scientists made the decisive breakthrough towards space travel in October 1942 by launching an A4 rocket 100km into space.

The rocket design, renamed the V2, was later used to bombard the South East of England and Antwerp in Belgium, killing thousands. The German scientist Wernher von Braun later helped America in the space race.

Germany’s partners have viewed with suspicion any attempt to develop a space programme outside established institutions such as the European Space Agency (ESA). Germany, of course, does not have a sinister military intent. As outlined to scientists at a meeting this week, it intends to send a satellite with a high-resolution camera to orbit the Moon for four years to prepare the first detailed lunar map. When this is completed, a rocket will land a robot soil-sampler.

German scientists lead the field in outer space measurement, photographic and radar technology, including the high-resolution cameras on board the European Space Agency craft Mars Express.

The German orbiter will be launched by 2013. The soil sampler should be on the Moon before 2020. The US manned space programme may also benefit from the Moon atlas if Nasa goes ahead with its plans to set up a lunar base.

Other European countries, including Britain and Italy, have been considering independent projects in space. “Every one of our members is permitted to start its own venture,” a spokeswoman for the ESA said.China is emerging as a space superpower, with two successful manned missions and ambitious plans to build space station. India also has an active programme. It plans to launch an unmanned lunar mission by early next year, plus manned space flights and an unmanned mission to Mars in 2012.

Germany’s space ambitions began peacefully enough in the 1920s. It was the Germans who first conceived of a prelaunch countdown — featured in the 1929 Utopian film Woman in the Moon by Fritz Lang.

First in space

— General Walter Dornberger said, on the launch of the A4 in 1942: “We have invaded space with a rocket and used space as a bridge between two points on the Earth”

— Within months the design, renamed the V2, above, was being mass-produced by slave labour for use as a weapon

— The key scientist involved in the A2 project was Wernher von Braun. After the war, he helped the US to build missiles capable of hitting the Soviet Union

— Moscow also seized German rocket scientists and set them to work on nuclear weapon delivery and space exploratio