-Maria Sheahan is a Reuters senior correspondent in Frankfurt.-

So far, Europe has left it up to the United States, Russia and China to send people into space. But almost 50 years after Russia’s Yuri Gagarin made his first orbit around the earth, it’s about time that Europe finally enter the playing field, some say.

“Europe cannot stay out of manned (space) flight forever,” EADS unit Astrium Space Transportation’s CEO Alain Charmeau said at the Paris Air Show. Europe has its own space agency, ESA; it has its own module on the International Space Station; and it has sent its astronauts into space as passengers on the spacecraft of others.

Launching its own manned spaceflight mission “is not a budgetary issue, it is a matter of political willingness,” Charmeau said. His company, which makes space launchers that carry satellites or other items into space and could make a lunar lander, would be one of many that would benefit from the additional business.

Even outside the sphere of government-funded space programs, Charmeau said he expects to see more people going up into space, as paying tourists.

“I am really a supporter of space tourism,” Charmeau said.

Astrium is building its own space plane for that market, but Charmeau cautioned that space tourism projects would have to wait until the financial crisis ends and investments are more readily available again. And Virgin Galactic has been eyeing space tourism as a major future market for a while as well.