ESA looks to space summit to endorse human spaceflight efforts

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WASHINGTON — The head of the European Space Agency says he hopes an upcoming space summit provides a political endorsement for major European space initiatives, including a human space exploration program.

At a Jan. 18 press conference to discuss his agency’s plans for the year, ESA Director General Josef Aschbacher said a Feb. 16 space summit of ESA and European Union member states in Toulouse, France, will be an opportunity for convince European politicians to support initiatives that could include giving Europe its own ability to launch people into space.

The summit is two meetings in one: the first half of the day will be a meeting of the E.U.’s Competitiveness Council in its “space configuration,” Aschbacher said, with ministers of ESA’s member states meeting later in the day. There will also be a joint lunch with discussions on climate change and human space exploration, as well as an address by French President Emmanuel Macron at the end of the day.

“The way that we are setting up the agenda is that they are interleaved, that they form one coherent package, and they depend on each other,” he said. “It’s a very integrated meeting that is providing one big picture for Europe.”

A major topic for discussion is likely to involve European human spaceflight. Since becoming head of the agency last year, Aschbacher has suggested Europe pursue its own ability to fly its astronauts, rather than rely on the U.S. or Russia to fly them on their spacecraft. Human space exploration was one of two long-term “inspirator” initiatives endorsed by ESA members at a November meeting.

At the press conference, he noted that in addition to China, Russia and the U.S., India is developing its own human spaceflight program that could start launching people as soon as next year. “They all have their own ship to discover the next frontier, and that means the next economic zone, which is the moon and beyond,” he said. “Europe doesn’t have such a ship.”

“This is a debate that is so important because, I think, this is going way beyond space. It’s not just a space discussion,” he said. “This is a political discussion that affects all elements of society.”

A special guest at the press conference was ESA astronaut Thomas Pesquet, who spent six months on the International Space Station last year and offered his endorsement of a new human spaceflight initiative. “We, as a group of European explorers, believe that Europe should be bold in space exploration. We are ready to boldly go and explore for Europe, if we are given the mandate,” he said.

Aschbacher said he’s looking for an endorsement of a European human space exploration capability at the space summit that would kick off planning for what such a program would entail. “It’s not a decision of budgets, but it’s a political decision where member states of the E.U. and ESA meet and discuss what Europe should be doing in the future in space.”

Asked what he would consider a successful outcome of the space summit, Aschbacher said that on human spaceflight he was looking for a political endorsement to study options for such a program. “I would certainly hope to get a very good debate by the political establishment in Europe,” he said. “Hopefully, a mandate that we have to work on this to make concrete proposals.” Those proposals would take about a year to develop, he added.

Human spaceflight will not be the only topic of the summit. Other issues include the other initiatives endorsed by ESA at the November meeting, which include climate change, using space assets for rapid response to crises and space safety. Another issue likely to come up is the E.U.’s interest in developing a satellite constellation for secure communications and broadband access.

“I would hope that we get a political endorsement” for those efforts, he said, with slight differences for each activity based on their programmatic frameworks.

The space summit is one of two major political meetings for ESA in 2022. Late this year ESA will hold its triennial ministerial meeting, where member states make decisions on what programs to pursue and the funding they will provide for them.

Planning for the ministerial meeting, including the package of programs ESA will seek support for, “is going very well,” Aschbacher said. “It’s an ambitious one, but, of course, we do need strong political support.”