David Southwood
Daniel Roland  /  AP file
David Southwood, director of Science at ESA speaks on the Rosetta Mission at the ESA European Space Operation Center on Feb. 25. 2007.
updated 2/28/2007 9:31:32 PM ET 2007-03-01T02:31:32

As a young space scientist in the early 1980s, David Southwood backed an offbeat idea for a joint U.S.-European mission to Saturn's moon Titan: Let the Europeans build the spacecraft's lander.

"In 1982, it was a joke," said Southwood, now science director for the European Space Agency. "My astronomer colleagues, who had better ways to spend the money, said, 'What do you want to do that for? Everyone knows only Americans can land on things.'"

Yet the lander did come to fruition in 2005, when the Huygens probe — carried on NASA's Cassini spacecraft — parachuted to Titan's surface and sent back pictures of a strange, cold world with an orange-brown atmosphere and lakes of liquid methane.

Southwood, 61, is now laying the foundations for missions that today's young European space scientists will bring to completion, building on ESA's growing expertise in flying interplanetary spacecraft.

Those include: the Rosetta comet probe, which made a crucial Mars flyby Sunday on its 10-year voyage to land on a comet; and Mars Express and Venus Express, both orbiting and gathering data on their respective planets.

The Mars and Venus Express missions have gone well enough to be extended by two years to early May 2009, in a decision reached last week.

Those successes leave Southwood feeling expansive about Europe's future in space exploration.

"The Americans are still No. 1," he said before the Rosetta flyby, noting the U.S. spends far more on science missions. "One thing we have to get over in Europe, and this is the thing that we haven't done, is that we could be doing anything anyone else could do. We could put people on the moon, certainly, send probes anywhere in the solar system."

"Just because the Americans and the Russians were first in the space race doesn't mean they always have to win it."

The agency's science committee last week gave final approval for BepiColombo, a joint probe with the Japanese space agency, to fly to Mercury in 2013.

The mission will confront the challenge of making a spacecraft that can function in the intense heat and radiation around the planet that is closest to the sun — and make it into orbit despite the strong pull of the sun's gravity. Only NASA's Mariner 10 has gone there, in three flybys in 1974-75.

And Southwood is looking beyond that, in a business where it takes decades to put a mission together.

ESA will send out requests in the next few weeks for mission proposals under Cosmic Vision, a $5.3 billion, 10-year plan covering ESA's unmanned basic space science missions from 2015 to 2025.

Slideshow: Month in Space: January 2014 Ideas include an orbiter around distant Uranus and a craft that could scatter small microprobes over Jupiter's moon Europa, which may have liquid water inside it, making it a prime candidate in the search for life beyond Earth.

"All the missions I'm doing now started 20 years ago, and they all had their origins before I became director, and the irony for me now is, all the missions I'm talking to you about I won't be director for," he said.

"Tomorrow turns out to be many years later in space. It's a big, big investment of manpower and effort and will. But we in Europe can do it."

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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