WASHINGTON — The European Space Agency announced Nov. 6 it will start a competition to develop commercial vehicles to transport cargo to and from the International Space Station by 2028, a step towards developing a crewed vehicle.

ESA’s member states, meeting in Seville, Spain, as part of the European Space Summit, endorsed a resolution directing the agency to take the first step in an effort patterned on NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program that would see European companies developing vehicles for cargo transport to the ISS and potentially future space stations.

“I’m asking for a small but very impactful step, the first step that enables a much bigger ambition,” Josef Aschbacher, ESA director general, said in remarks at the opening of the ESA Council meeting there. “I propose a competition between innovative European companies to deliver a space cargo return service to transport cargo to the International Space Station by 2028 and bring it back to Earth.”

Details about the competition have yet to be worked out. Aschbacher said at a media briefing after the ESA Council meeting that he will establish a small “tiger team” withing the agency to start the program. He envisioned a first phase where ESA provided study contracts to two or three companies in the near term with a total value of 75 million euros ($80 million), using existing funding.

Funding for later phases of the program would be allocated by ESA member states at the next triennial ministerial meeting in 2025, known as CM25. He did not disclose what he estimated the cost of the program might be.

While ESA officials did not explicitly state it, the effort is clearly inspired by NASA’s COTS program, which offered funding to companies to support development of cargo capabilities. When then-NASA Administrator Mike Griffin announced the COTS program in 2005, the agency envisioned spending $500 million (about $790 million in current dollars) on the effort. NASA provided additional funding later in the program, which resulted in SpaceX’s cargo Dragon reaching the ISS in 2012 and Orbital Sciences’ (now Northrop Grumman’s) Cygnus cargo spacecraft in 2013.

It’s unclear what level of interest the ESA competition will attract, but some European companies have already announced plans for cargo spacecraft. The Exploration Company, which raised 40.5 million euros in a Series A round in February, is working on a series of capsules, with a goal of sending one to the ISS as soon as 2027. Rocket Factory Augsburg, a company working on a small launch vehicle, announced in September it is partnering with Atmos Space Cargo and OHB on a cargo vehicle.

Aschbacher said the commercial cargo program is in response to the recommendations of a high-level advisory group the agency chartered to examine what the agency should do in human space exploration. That group, in a report released in March, recommended an ambitious European human spaceflight program using commercial approaches.

“We will also conceive it in a way that is not a dead end,” he said of the cargo vehicle at the briefing, “meaning that it’s open and can evolve in the future to a crew vehicle if member states decide to do so.”

He suggested that ESA didn’t seek to go immediately into a crewed vehicle because of funding. The meeting, he said, was not one where ESA sought funding, as those amounts were fixed for a three-year period at a ministerial meeting a year ago. “I’m asking for a first step in order to build up a program proposal which we will now prepare with our member state for CM25.”

The 75 million euros for the first phase of the cargo program will come from money already allocated to ESA’s European Exploration Envelope Programme. The funding will be exempt from ESA’s geographic return policies that require member states to receive funding in proportion to what they provide ESA, but the use of that policy for later phases of the program will have to be negotiated, he said.

Launch policies

ESA members at the meeting also backed plans to provide support for Europe’s struggling launch industry and to open it up for competition.

That includes what Aschbacher called “stabilized exploitation” for the Ariane 6 and Vega C launch vehicles. That comes in the form of guaranteed financial support for a tranche of 27 Ariane 6 rockets and spending up to 340 million euros a year for that vehicle. ESA will also provide similar support for a set of 17 Vega C rockets at up to 21 million euros a year.

“This is very good news because we have a stable future for launchers in Europe of medium and large sizes,” he said. “This is a big relief, I can tell you, because a few days ago we did not have this situation yet.”

In parallel to that launch vehicle support, ESA said it will create a “challenge” or competition for launch services for an unspecified number of missions. Those launches will be open to any European provider.

“We have to change how we procure the launchers of the future,” he said, describing it as a “paradigm shift” to a services approach where ESA does not specify the launch vehicle and serves as an anchor customer.

ESA did not disclose how many launches it will compete through that effort or over what period of time. Aschabcher said funding for both the Ariane 6 and Vega C support as well as the launch challenge will be arranged at the 2025 ministerial meeting.

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...