ESA Director General Josef Aschbacher. Credit: Sebastiaan ter Burg

COLORADO SPRINGS — The European Space Agency is preparing for a space summit this fall to win support for a new human spaceflight initiative as well as a new launch strategy.

In an April 17 interview, Josef Aschbacher, ESA director general, said the agency is working on developing plans to present to ESA and European Union member states at the second European space summit, scheduled for November in Seville, Spain.

ESA will seek to win political support, although not funding, for future human spaceflight programs as recommended by a high-level advisory group in a report released March 23. That report, “Revolution Space,” called on Europe to embark on an ambitious effort to develop its own human spaceflight capabilities, including launching astronauts to low Earth orbit and even the moon.

“It’s really a political summit on the way forward for Europe and what ESA should be doing to implement it,” Aschbacher said. “I expect a political decision on the European approach to human and robotic spaceflight.”

To prepare the summit, he said ESA is working on “use cases” for European human spaceflight infrastructure in orbit and on the moon. That will lead to scenarios for implementing those use cases, including high-level architectures and cost estimates.

“We will develop scenarios for the decision makers, and they will tell us, based on those scenarios, what they want us to do and how they want us to proceed,” he said.

That political decision will not immediately provide funding for ESA to implement those scenarios, but guide planning ahead of ESA’s next ministerial council meeting in late 2025 where member states will commit to funding specific programs, including potential human spaceflight initiatives.

“There is a lot of work that will need to be done” ahead of the 2025 ministerial council meeting, or CM25, he said. ESA does have a small amount of funding available to support that planning. “With moderate investments, you can prepare well. CM25 will be a key milestone.”

Aschbacher said he was pleasantly surprised by the Revolution Space report. The advisory group consisted almost entirely of people without space industry experience, ranging from a former NATO secretary general to an artist. “They really developed a very clear picture,” he said, of where Europe stood in human spaceflight and what it should do. “It was very surprising for me — a very positive surprise — that this comes out in the report in clear, strong language.”

“Europe cannot stay out of this,” he said of human spaceflight. “Quite the opposite: Europe has to reinforce its effort and be very bold in engaging in this.”

Launch strategy

The space summit will cover issues in addition to human spaceflight, such as the role space can play in addressing climate change. It will also address a European launch strategy that goes beyond development of the Ariane 6 and Vega C vehicles.

“It’s really the larger picture of how Europe wants to establish itself in access to space,” he said. That includes support for “microlaunchers” or small launch vehicles being developed by several European companies as well as a longer-term evaluation of space access.

“It’s clear that the current situation needs a deeper reflection on the launcher sector in Europe,” he said, including how to achieve guaranteed access to space for Europe.

That discussion comes amid delays in the introduction of the Ariane 6 and efforts to return Vega C to flight after a launch failure in December. He said work is in progress to have the Vega C launch again by the end of the year after implementing changes such as a new nozzle insert that was the cause of the December failure.

Aschbacher declined to give a target date for the first Ariane 6 launch, which ESA said last fall would take place no earlier than the fourth quarter of 2023 after extensive development delays. Work is proceeding in several areas, including a hotfire test planned for early July.

He said he was working with the industrial partners on the Ariane 6 project to offer a regular series of public updates on the progress towards that first launch. By the time of the hotfire test in July, he said, the Ariane 6 partners should know enough “that we can then make a much better prediction of the maiden flight date.”

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...