ESA Joins U.S.-European Starlab Commercial Space Station Project

ESA Joins U.S.-European Starlab Commercial Space Station Project

ESA just signed a memorandum of understanding with the U.S. company Voyager Space and Europe’s Airbus to collaborate on the Starlab commercial space station project. The announcement comes three days after ESA announced plans to build a commercial cargo return vehicle to take supplies to and from Earth orbit starting with the International Space Station and later commercial stations built to replace it.  Apparently they had the Voyager-Airbus Starlab in mind.

Voyager is one of the three companies working with NASA through Public-Private Partnerships to develop commercial follow-ons to the ISS.

ISS is old and getting older. On November 20, the ISS partners will celebrate the 25th anniversary of the launch of the first module, Zarya, built by Russia, but paid for by the United States.  NASA and its ISS partners in Europe, Japan and Canada have agreed to operate ISS through 2030. Russia is signed up through 2028, but NASA expects them to extend that to 2030 in due course.

NASA is partnered with Nanoracks, part of Voyager Space, and Blue Origin on the Commercial LEO Destinations (CLD) program and has a separate agreement with Axiom Space to build a commercial station that begins with attaching modules to ISS and separating them later. Another company, Northrop Grumman, recently withdrew its entry from the CLD program and teamed with Voyager instead. How much of a market there will be for utilizing commercial space stations is a concern.

Voyager and Airbus formed a joint venture to develop Starlab in August saying it would unite “American and European interests in space exploration.”

ESA’s MOU with the joint venture is a further step in that direction.  The ESA announcement says the MOU “reflects ESA’s ambition for a smooth transition” from ISS “towards sustained exploitation of human and robotic infrastructures in low Earth orbit after 2030, including through commercial services.”

Among the areas of collaboration under consideration is “establishment of a complete ‘end-to-end’ system” with Starlab as a destination and “a potential ESA-developed European cargo and crew transportation system.”

The careful wording that it is a “potential” ESA system is because on Monday the ESA Council approved only the first phase of developing the new cargo capsule using existing funds.  They will not commit to completing the program until the next ministerial meeting in 2025, but ESA Director General Josef Aschbacher clearly anticipates the answer will be yes. ESA is following a similar approach to how NASA procured the commercial cargo and commercial crew systems that resupply the ISS today.

Illustration of Starlab. Credit: Starlab Space

Airbus built the European Columbus module that is part of the ISS as well as ESA’s five Automated Transfer Vehicles that delivered cargo to the ISS between 2008 and 2015.  The ATVs could not bring anything back to Earth, however. They also berthed to the ISS rather than docked.  The new vehicle will both deliver and return cargo and dock, similar to SpaceX’s Cargo Dragon. Also similar to Cargo Dragon, it could evolve into carrying astronauts as well.

In a statement, Aschbacher said today that “ESA appreciates the transatlantic industry initiative for the commercial Starlab space station, and the potential that its strong European footprint holds for significant European industrial and institutional contributions to, and use of, said station.”

Voyager Space President Matthew Kuta said: “We look forward to working with Airbus and ESA to extend Europe’s footprint in space and ensure they remain a leader in the new generation of commercial space exploration.” Airbus CEO Mike Schoelhorn added that the agreement “builds on a long and successful partnership between ESA and Airbus in developing and operating a wide range of crewed and uncrewed spacecraft.”

Airbus also builds the Service Module for NASA’s Orion spacecraft for the Artemis program through an ESA-NASA agreement. The Service Module is derived from ATV.

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