ESA: Time to Assert Europe’s “Rightful Place” in Space

ESA: Time to Assert Europe’s “Rightful Place” in Space

The ministers of the European Space Agency’s member states today committed to a “paradigm shift” in the European space program and “asserting Europe’s rightful place in the world.” Meeting as part of a Space Summit in Seville, Spain in tandem with the European Union’s space program, the ESA Council declared it will lift Europe’s space ambitions for a “green and sustainable future, access to space, and space exploration.” Among the new initiatives is a commercial cargo return vehicle for the ISS that could evolve into a crewed capsule.

ESA Director General Josef Aschbacher at the ESA Space Summit, Seville, Spain, November 6, 2023. Screengrab.

Following on a very successful ESA ministerial meeting a year ago that saw the international organization’s 22 member countries commit to a 17 percent increase in spending for the next 3 years, today ESA Director General Josef Aschbacher issued a rallying cry for expanding Europe’s space presence, particularly in human and robotic spaceflight.

Today is an important day … for human and robotic exploration.  Our choice is clear. We can watch or act, we can follow or lead, and we can stagnate or inspire. — Josef Aschbacher

That was not the only focus, however.

First were “green and sustainable future” commitments not only for Earth itself, but Earth orbit. In addition to “accelerating” the use of earth observation data from satellites to monitor climate change on the planet, ESA invited public organizations and commercial space companies to sign a Zero Debris Charter to reduce the amount of space debris.

Second was access to space. Europe’s independent access is extremely limited at the moment because of delays in developing the new Ariane 6 rocket — the last Ariane 5 launched months ago — and technical problems with the new Vega-C.  Aschbacher calls it a “crisis” and ESA has been forced to buy launch services from SpaceX to fill in the gap for spacecraft that can’t wait.

As he has said many times, Aschbacher repeated that he cannot forecast when the Ariane 6 inaugural flight will take place. More will be known after a critical full duration (470 seconds) core stage engine test firing currently scheduled for November 23. Nonetheless, today the ESA Council expressed confidence both in Ariane 6 and Vega-C, which is still on the mend after a December 2022 failure on its second flight. ESA is guaranteeing financial support for more of them to provide stability to the manufacturers. Instead of 15, they are committed to financing 42 of each. That comes at an estimated cost of up to €340 million per year for Ariane 6 and €21 million per year for Vega-C starting in 2026, Aschbacher confirmed.

They also agreed to develop a new launch vehicle on a commercial basis. ESA will not dictate the rocket’s capabilities, but hold a competition and agree to be the anchor customer. Aschbacher declared it a “paradigm shift” from the past, a “historic moment.”

One of the spacecraft that couldn’t wait was the Euclid space telescope. Launched by SpaceX in July, ESA will release its first images tomorrow. Euclid is one of ESA’s many robotic space exploration projects, but European human exploration is dependent on the United States, either ESA’s partnership with NASA in the International Space Station and Artemis programs or purchasing commercial flights from Axiom.

ESA wants to change that and develop its own human spaceflight systems. In March it released the “Revolution Space”” report from a specially-appointed High Level Advisory Group (HLAG) that called for European autonomy including European-led lunar landings in 10 years.

Aschbacher drove home the point today.

Exploration is more than just a journey. It transcends space. It serves as a technological catalyst. It offers scientific opportunities and drives social and economic validity. Exploration will inspire young people in Europe, fuel future space programs … It will influence fields such as medicine, mobility, connectivity, energy, smart cities, and infrastructures. We cannot afford to miss this opportunity for Europe since we already have most of the pieces in place. — Josef Aschbacher

One piece that’s missing, he continued, is the ability to deliver cargo to space and bring it back to Earth and he envisions that spacecraft evolving into a crewed vehicle.

The ESA Council today agreed to begin phase 1 of building a cargo spacecraft not just to take supplies to the International Space Station like ESA’s five Automated Transfer Vehicles (ATVs) did between 2008 and 2015, but bring material back.

The goal is for the first flight in 2028 to the ISS, just five years from now, with a vehicle that can dock rather than berth.  Spacecraft that berth, like ATV, Japan’s HTV and Northrop Grumman’s Cygnus must be captured by the ISS crew using the robotic Canadarm2 and then installed onto a port instead of docking autonomously.

Northrop Grumman’s Cygnus cargo spacecraft is captured by astronauts on the ISS using the robotic Canadarm2, which was later used to install it onto a docking port, a process called berthing.  August 4, 2023. Credit: NASA.   ESA’s ATV also berthed, but the new vehicle will be able to dock on its own. 

ESA’s program sounds very similar to NASA’s commercial cargo program and, in particular, SpaceX’s version. The Dragon spacecraft started off as a cargo vehicle that berthed instead of docked, but evolved into a spacecraft that can be flown either with crew or without, and docks. Like NASA’s commercial cargo and crew programs, ESA will not specify the design, only the services it wants and agree to serve as the anchor customer.

For now, the destination for ESA’s cargo vehicle will be the ISS. Although ISS is slated to be deorbited in 2030, commercial space stations are expected to succeed it. Europe’s Airbus is partnered with the U.S. company Voyager Space to build and operate Starlab, one of the competitors in NASA’s Commercial LEO Destinations program.

Although he talked mostly about the cargo version, the intent to build a crew version seemed clear from the requirement that it be able to dock.  Aschbacher was careful not to make a commitment to a crewed version, that’s a future decision for the Council to make, but he went as far as to say a crew version could go to “other destinations from low Earth orbit eventually possibly to the Moon” if the Council made such a decision.

Aschbacher pledged to create a “tiger team” tomorrow to begin the competitive procurement process. He expects as many as three European companies to bid.  He could only commit to Phase 1 of the program today using €75 million of existing funds, but Phase 2 will be considered at the next ministerial meeting in 2025.

ESA Council Chair Anna Christmann (Germany), ESA Director General Josef Aschbacher, ESA Head of Communications Philippe Willekens, ESA Space Summit, Seville, Spain. November 6, 2023.  Screengrab.

In a statement, ESA said they are “asserting Europe’s rightful place in the world.”

Anna Christmann, Federal Government Coordinator of German Aerospace Policy and chair of the ESA Council, said the Summit showed the European “spirit to work together” in difficult times.

We have a war in Europe. We have a conflict in Israel. And we have major challenges like the climate crisis. So many things that need to be solved. And today we together acknowledged how important space is as part of the solution. All the innovation power that comes with it, but also the opportunities and chances to fight the climate crisis and also to secure European sovereignty and competitiveness. All these topics were on the agenda today and I think we made huge steps forward. — Anna Christmann

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