According to Director General Josef Aschbacher, the European Space Agency is developing proposals to develop spacecraft over the next decade that can fly ESA astronauts into orbit and to the moon.
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 keep up in a rapidly evolving global race to space.
“What’s happening in the US, China and India is pretty impressive,” he said. “If you take a step back and see where Europe stands worldwide, you see that Europe is not at the same level. I see so many opportunities, some lost opportunities.”
A recent independent report commissioned by ESA on human and robotic space exploration found that more than 100 lunar missions had been announced for 2030, both by national space agencies and private companies. “At the moment, Europe leads only two,” it stated.
The report noted that Europe had no independent human launch capability and relied on non-European partners to send humans into space, “threatening its future as a credible space actor”.
ESA is currently working as a junior partner with the American space agency NASA on lunar exploration projects. “No timetable has been agreed (with NASA) on when a European astronaut will be on the moon,” Aschbacher said, “but I hope we can get there before the end of the decade.”
ESA’s program to develop a spacecraft that can take European astronauts to low Earth orbit and beyond could improve the way Europe manages space procurement, Aschbacher said.
NASA’s decision in the early 2000s to buy private sector cargo delivery services rather than develop its own vehicles drove the rise of Elon Musk’s SpaceX, which is now the dominant launch provider. “That’s exactly the model we’re discussing,” he said.
ESA prepared “different scenarios and different cost estimates” to present to a meeting of member state ministers in November. It will be decided next year whether the program will be fully funded.
The agency, which is independent from the EU but acts as its purchasing office, includes non-EU member states such as the UK and Switzerland. “We will certainly have enough elements on the table for politicians to give us clear guidelines on how Europe wants to move forward,” Aschbacher said.
However, Europe is still struggling to resolve a crisis over its existing satellite-launching capacity after it lost access to Soyuz missiles following Ukraine’s full-scale invasion of Russia. The Ariane 5 rocket, which launched Europe’s $1.6 billion Juice spacecraft for a mission to Jupiter’s icy moons in April, will make its final flight this month, while its successor Ariane is 6 years behind schedule. The new Vega C rocket is grounded pending 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 over the next decade.
These include the European Service Module, which provides electricity, water and oxygen to NASA’s Orion spacecraft that will send astronauts to the moon. Europe also has the automated transport vehicle that delivers cargo to the International Space Station in low Earth orbit every year.
While Ariane 6 could eventually be upgraded to have a human launch capability, it wasn’t a given. “Other vehicles could be developed,” in the same way NASA’s strategy had encouraged SpaceX’s rise, he said.
In November, at a ministerial summit in Paris, ESA announced 17 new members of its astronaut corps, including the world’s first disabled para-astronaut.