Collapse of ESA-Roscosmos Crew Vehicle Partnership Holds Lessons

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PARIS — The collapse of a Euro-Russian collaboration on manned space vehicles offers lessons for today’s attempts to create a global initiative for human exploration beyond low Earth orbit, European government and industry officials said.

In a presentation to a conference on prospective European space collaboration with emerging nations, Astrium Space Transportation and the European Space Agency (ESA) said the attempt by ESA and the Russian space agency, Roscosmos, to join forces on a new crew transport vehicle fell apart for reasons that are as valid today as when the effort was abandoned in 2009.

Perhaps the most important hurdle is technology-export regulations, which ultimately doomed the proposed Crew Space Transportation System (CSTS) after millions of dollars of investment between 2006 and 2009.

Not for the first time, European officials acknowledged that while U.S. technology-transfer barriers, commonly known as the International Traffic in Arms Regulations, get the most publicity, similar restrictions apply in Russia and in Europe.

Recently the Euro-Russian ExoMars project, which features two launches to Mars in 2016 and 2018, including a European lander on the 2016 mission, was forced to do without a Russian nuclear power source because licenses for its export to Europe for integration with the spacecraft could not be secured in time.

Similarly, managers of ESA’s new Vega small-satellite launcher program were obliged to find a substitute for the French-provided guidance, navigation and control system after Vega’s maiden flight because France refused to permit its export to Italy, home of the Vega prime contractor. Vega’s second flight, with the new Italian-made guidance suite, was successfully conducted on May 7.

In their May 16 presentation to the Symposium on Legal and Policy Aspects of Space Cooperation Between Europe and the BRICS countries, Astrium and ESA said export control proved more difficult than expected for the Euro-Russian CSTS endeavor.

“Stringent export control regimes on space and dual-use technologies require both sides to pass as quickly as possible to formally controlled [exchanges] covered by inter-agency information-exchange agreements,” the authors said. “The understanding of their importance and the time required to establish such agreements is often much underestimated by implementation-oriented program management.”

It seems like part of another era, but it was only seven years ago that ESA and Roscosmos decided that a joint crew transportation system would serve both sides’ interests given the fact that China and the United States seemed not to wish to invite foreign participation in their systems.

ESA and Roscosmos wanted to design a crew carrier that would be operated both from Europe’s Guiana Space Center spaceport in South America, and from Roscosmos-controlled launch bases.

The result of the studies was a capsule borrowing from Russia’s Soyuz vehicle heritage and from Europe’s Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) space-station freighter. 

When the studies began, the 20,000-kilogram ATV had yet to fly. It has now successfully docked, automatically, with the international space station three times. The fourth ATV – the vehicles are discarded after each mission to burn up in the atmosphere – is scheduled for launch June 5.

The joint work concluded with a plan that Russia would focus on a design of a new capsule, with Europe focusing on the service module, with an exchange of components flowing between Europe and Russia.

Issues soon developed, however, according to the presentation made by Cristian Bank of Astrium Space Transportation and Marco Caporicci of ESA. They included: Intellectual property rights and the legally required confidentiality of data labeled as militarily sensitive. Filtering information exchange to permit the work to move forward while staying within regulatory boundaries was a challenge, as was the question of who assumes ownership of the work produced, and after what level of acceptance testing.

A second issue involved the value to place on each side’s work share, and the relative value of services and products.

The relationship between the principal Russian industrial participant, RSC Energia, and the Astrium-led European team was never clarified as to whether they were co-prime contractors in a joint venture or a single team in which one was prime and the other a subcontractor.

According to the CSTS final report, the expected detailed system-engineering phase was derailed due to the absence of a technology transfer agreement. The Russian side began work on its own, without much communication with the European consortium, leading to duplication.

As a result, different technical solutions were proposed.

The European work centered in part on an evolved Ariane 5 heavy-lift rocket whose development was not yet certain in 2008. The Russian work was based on a new man-rated launch vehicle using Russia’s Vostochny spaceport, but its development timetable was never clear.

These issues, coupled with the expected questions about future production volume and the division of financial compensation ultimately caused the program to be shut down.

ESA continued the work through a program called the Advanced Reentry Vehicle, which would have started Europe on the path to a crew-return vehicle by reinforcing the Automated Transfer Vehicle so that it could return to Earth intact. This program has since been abandoned.

ESA and NASA have agreed that ESA will provide the service module for NASA’s Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle, at least for one Orion flight. A longer-term collaboration on Orion has yet to be negotiated.

“The CSTS experience could help in identifying deficiencies in utilization-scheme baselining and program ramp-up,” the presentation’s authors said of the Orion collaboration.