France to be the fourth nation in space

The credible recent rumours that China is less than a week away from it’s first manned space flight appear to have stimulated some other potential space-faring nations. France and Russia have announced an accord en principle to launch manned Russian Soyuz craft from the ESA launch centre at Kourou in French Guiana. The Soyuz is the now roughly thirty-five year old Russian three-man launch vehicle which China has cloned for its space programme. France will be footing approximately half of the €350 million the ESA has allocated to the programme, making either France or the ESA the world’s fourth space power. Agence France-Presse, via Spaceflight Daily, is reporting that launches could take place as soon as 2006.

With the American space shuttle (also designed roughly 30 years ago) grounded indefinitely and no new money going into the design of manned launch vehicles, the Soyuz is the only manned space vehicle currently in service and appears likely to stay that way

According to French primeminister Jean-Marie Raffarin, “Cela nous donnera une grande base [permettant] ? nos industries spatiales, avec les Russes mais aussi avec les Allemands et les Europ?ens [..] d’avoir acc?s ? l’espace et ? toutes ses richesses dans l’ind?pendance.”

It seems that the Columbia shuttle accident and recent US-EU tensions have forced the ESA to evaluate its options for an independent manned space capability. At present, only the Russian space agency is able to reach the International Space Station. I guess the ESA figured that if China could afford to launch Soyuz capsules, then it’s probably the cheapest option for European manned space travel.

If €350 million will buy you a copy of the Russian manned space programme, can Japan be far behind? Perhaps even Brazil will want to join the game, since it has a really quite well developed unmanned space programme. €350 million isn’t that much money. There are individuals with more in assets than that.

It has become traditional for each space-faring nation to come up with a new word for people who travel in space. Americans are astronauts, Russians are cosmonauts, and Chinese space travelers are taikonauts (from tai4kong1 taikong – Mandarin for “space.”) Will an independent manned EU space programme require a new term? Enquiring minds (well, pedantic lexicographers at any rate) want to know.

My Petit Robert already has a French appellation for space travellers: spationaute. The term is, apparently, in actual use, since googling it gets approximately 2,300 hits. Some of the French press – and even a few anglophone outlets – have used the word to refer to Frenchmen (and women) who have travelled into space on the shuttle and on Russian launches. My Robert dates it to 1962, but doesn’t tell me if it was an Académie Française invention or a spontaneous production of the French media. It also marks it as rare, but that seems to be rapidly changing.

From a lexicographic standpoint, this one-word-per-nation approach is a disaster. I wonder if the other members of the ESA will be demanding their own words for their space travellers. Will Germans taking off from Kourou demand to be refered to as “Raumonauts”? How about the Brits and the Irish? Will they demand separate terminology from the Americans? Or worse, from each other? Will the Irish demand to be known as fanasonauts? Perhaps, in the name of European cooperation, we should all agree on a single term. Euronaut is a distinct possibility. The Latin root vacuus suggest vaconaut, but something tells me that will not fly. Any suggestions?