The European Space Agency is preparing proposals for the development of spacecraft over the next decade that could take ESA astronauts to orbit and to the Moon, according to its director general Josef Aschbacher.
Speaking to the Financial Times ahead of the FT Investing in Space summit in London, Aschbacher said developing an independent human launch capability was crucial for Europe to catch up in a rapidly evolving global space race.
What is happening in the United States, China and India is quite impressive, he said. If you take a step back and see where Europe is globally, you see that Europe has not engaged to the same degree. I see so many opportunities, some of them missed opportunities.
A recent ESA-commissioned independent report on human and robotic exploration of space found that more than 100 lunar missions before 2030 had been announced, both by national space agencies and private companies. At the moment, Europe leads only two, he said.
The report noted that Europe lacked an independent human launch capability and relied on non-European partners to send people into space, which threatens its future as a credible player in space.
Currently, ESA is working as a junior partner with the US space agency NASA on lunar exploration projects. There is no agreed time [with Nasa] on when a European astronaut will be on the moon, Aschbacher said, but my hope is that we can achieve this before the end of the decade.
ESA’s program to develop a spacecraft capable of carrying European astronauts to low-Earth orbit and beyond could improve the way Europe manages space supplies, Aschbacher said.
NASA’s decision in the early 2000s to purchase cargo services from the private sector, rather than develop its own vehicles, fueled the rise of Elon Musks SpaceX, which is now the dominant launch supplier. That’s exactly the model we’re discussing, he said.
ESA was preparing several scenarios and cost estimates to be presented at a meeting of member state ministers in November. A decision will be made next year whether to proceed with a fully funded programme.
The agency, which is independent of the EU but acts as a procurement agency, includes non-EU states such as the UK and Switzerland. We will certainly have enough elements on the table for politicians to give us clear indications on how Europe wants to proceed, said Aschbacher.
However, Europe is still struggling to resolve a crisis over existing satellite launch capability after it lost access to Soyuz rockets following Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Its Ariane 5 rocket, which launched Europa’s 1.6 billion Juice spacecraft on a mission to Jupiter’s icy moons in April, is expected to make its last flight this month, while its successor Ariane 6 has undergone years of delay. The new Vega C rocket is on the ground awaiting an investigation into a failed mission last year.
But Aschbacher said Europe already had many of the building blocks needed to develop its own human launch capability within the next decade.
These included the European Service Module, which supplies electricity, water and oxygen to NASA’s Orion spacecraft that will send astronauts to the moon. Europe also has the Automated Transport Vehicle that carries cargo to the International Space Station in low Earth orbit every year.
While Ariane 6 could eventually be upgraded to have human launch capability, this was not a given. Other vehicles could be developed in the same way that NASA’s strategy encouraged the emergence of SpaceX, he said.
In November, ESA unveiled 17 new members of its astronaut corps, including the world’s first disabled para-astronaut, at a ministerial meeting in Paris, who agreed to increase spending by 17% to 16.9 billion in next five years.
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