The European Space Agency (ESA) made a groundbreaking announcement on November 6, indicating a monumental leap in the transportation of cargo to and from the International Space Station (ISS).
This initiative marks a strategic move towards establishing commercial vehicles for cargo transport by the year 2028.
The decision, endorsed during the European Space Summit in Seville, Spain, involves ESA’s member states directing the agency to mirror a program akin to NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS).
The envisioned program will encourage European companies to develop and deploy vehicles for cargo transport to the ISS and, potentially, future space stations.
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Launching the Competition
Josef Aschbacher, the director general of ESA, passionately advocated for this transformative step during the ESA Council meeting. “I’m asking for a small but very impactful step, the first step that enables a much bigger ambition,” he emphasized.
Aschbacher proposed a competition that challenges innovative European companies to provide a space cargo return service. This service aims to facilitate the transportation of cargo to the ISS by 2028 and ensure its safe return to Earth.
Details regarding the competition are yet to be fully outlined. Aschbacher confirmed plans to establish a dedicated “tiger team” within ESA to kickstart this groundbreaking program.
The initial phase envisages ESA awarding study contracts to two or three companies in the near term, with a combined value of 75 million euros ($80 million), utilizing existing funding.
Funding and Future Phases
For subsequent phases of the program, funding would be earmarked by ESA member states at the forthcoming triennial ministerial meeting in 2025 (CM25). The director general refrained from disclosing the estimated overall cost of the program. Nonetheless, he expressed optimism about the allocation of resources for advancing this ambitious initiative.
The ESA’s move draws inspiration from NASA’s highly successful COTS program, which offered financial support to companies for the development of cargo transportation capabilities. The COTS program, initiated in 2005 under the helm of then-NASA Administrator Mike Griffin, envisioned an investment of $500 million, which subsequently propelled accomplishments such as SpaceX’s cargo Dragon reaching the ISS in 2012 and Orbital Sciences’ (now Northrop Grumman’s) Cygnus cargo spacecraft in 2013.
Industry Response and Partnership Initiatives
Although the level of participation in the ESA competition remains uncertain, numerous European companies have already announced their intent to contribute.
The Exploration Company, after securing 40.5 million euros in a Series A round in February, is diligently working on a series of capsules, aiming to dispatch one to the ISS as early as 2027.
Rocket Factory Augsburg, in collaboration with Atmos Space Cargo and OHB, announced plans for a cargo vehicle while actively developing a small launch vehicle.
Aschbacher emphasized that the development of this commercial cargo program aligns with the recommendations set forth by a high-level advisory group.
The group’s report, released in March, strongly advocated for an ambitious European human spaceflight program that embraces commercial methodologies.
Evolutionary Prospects and Limitations
“We will also conceive it in a way that is not a dead end,” Aschbacher pointed out during the briefing.
He stressed the program’s openness to evolution, hinting at the potential transition from cargo to a crewed vehicle, provided member states support such a decision.
Acknowledging budgetary constraints, Aschbacher clarified that seeking immediate funding was not the primary agenda during this meeting. The fixed funding for three years, determined at a ministerial meeting a year ago, constrained immediate financial solicitations.
The allocated 75 million euros for the program’s initial phase will be sourced from ESA’s European Exploration Envelope Programme.
However, the application of ESA’s geographic return policies to later phases of the program would necessitate negotiation among member states, he highlighted.
Reforming Launch Policies
In addition to the commercial cargo program, the ESA members gathered at the meeting supported strategies to revitalize Europe’s ailing launch industry and open it up to enhanced competitiveness.
This reform includes ensuring the stable operation of the Ariane 6 and Vega C launch vehicles. ESA has secured guaranteed financial backing for a specified number of launches for both vehicles.
Aschbacher emphasized that this support, providing financial stability for the Ariane 6 rockets and Vega C rockets, was a relieving development in contrast to the recent uncertainties.
Simultaneously, ESA declared the initiation of a “challenge” or competition for launch services, open to any European provider, to further foster a services-oriented approach. This shift aims to enable ESA to act as an anchor customer without specifying the launch vehicle.
Future Funding and Implementations
Details regarding the number of launches and the timeframe for these efforts have not been disclosed by ESA.
Aschbacher confirmed that funding for both the Ariane 6 and Vega C support, along with the launch challenge, will be addressed at the 2025 ministerial meeting.
This strategic leap by the European Space Agency not only marks a transformative phase in cargo transportation to the ISS but also signals a broader reform in the European space industry.
With a vision to empower innovative enterprises and ensure cost-effective and efficient space exploration, ESA’s initiative seeks to reshape the future of space travel and exploration.