Europe’s role in the future of human spaceflight will depend greatly on whether they can establish a beneficial partnership with Russia now. It is now up to Russia to make that happen.
To haul astronauts and cargo to the international space station, the Russians are designing the Clipper spacecraft. For the same purposes, the Americans are designing the Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV). By the middle of the next decade, both nations are scheduled to have their own means of transportation to go to the space station, as well as to the Moon and to Mars.
The Europeans are not developing a shuttle of their own and will depend on rides aboard Russian and/or American carriers. The only way for them to secure those rides is to contribute critical technology for the new spaceship.
“If Europe is not involved in the next-generation space transportation systems, we will stay forever a second-class partner,” warns European Space Agency () Director-General Jean-Jacques Dordain.
However, the availability of a seat for the Europeans aboard Russian or U.S. spacecraft depends on whether ESA would be willing to participate in the Roskosmos and NASA space transportation projects, and whether Roskosmos and NASA would welcome ESA as a partner.
The Russian Clipper reusable spacecraft will replace the workhorse of the Russian space program, the Soyuz rocket, which has been in operation since the 1960s and is currently the only reliable transport to the space station. Clipper will be able to carry six people — two pilots and four astronauts or space tourists — and will be capable of hauling some 698.5 kilograms of cargo. Improved aerodynamics will allow the Clipper to cut regular and irregular G-forces; it also will be able to maneuver during the controlled re-entry stage, increasing the precision of landing. The Clipper test flight is tentatively scheduled for 2011, with its first manned flight scheduled for 2012.
The alternative to Clipper is NASA’s CEV. The vehicle, which will be shaped like an Apollo-era capsule, will be launched atop a rocket and will return back to Earth by parachutes. The planned spacecraft will transport up to six crew members to and from the ISS, and up to four astronauts for Moon exploration missions, which NASA expects to start in 2018. Currently, there are two bidders to build the CEV — Lockheed Martin and the Northrop Grumman-Boeing team.
They are working with NASA to define requirements and develop conceptual designs for the spacecraft. The winner will be announced sometime in the fall.
Although partnership with both Russia and the United States was under consideration, ESA’s original inclination was to team up with NASA. The European giant EADS Space Transportation (now Astrium Space Transportation) partnered with one of the CEV bidders — Lockheed Martin — hoping to be a major foreign contractor for the project. Those hopes, however, were short-lived.
In late 2005, EADS Space Transportation was informed that the CEV is planned as “American only” endeavor and that European participation will not be needed. Eventually, NASA Administrator Mike Griffin and White House officials clearly told ESA that the CEV is not subject to international cooperation.
Having set participation in at least one new space transportation project as one its priorities, and having allocated $360 million over the next three years to developing technologies for new transport spacecraft, ESA has made a decision to pursue collaboration with Roskosmos more aggressively. Winning support to the Clipper project from most of the 17 ESA member states has turned out to be a challenge, though.
Russia has proposed that ESA and Japan join the Clipper as contractors. Japanese officials have said that they are evaluating the idea and that they would be more likely to join the Russian program if Europe did.
However, at the meeting of the ESA council in Berlin in December 2005, the member states failed to reach an agreement to allocate $60 million over the next two years to conduct a feasibility study on ESA participation in the Clipper project. Although some member states were ready to contribute the full amount, it was important to get support from the majority of nations.
The major reasons for the rejection of the Russian proposal, experts say, was that the whole project was not well-thought out, there was no feasibility study, and no tender was announced.
The Clipper project was suggested by the Energia Rocket and Space Corp., of which the Russian government owns 38 percent of the shares, and there was a strong suspicion that Roskosmos supported the project in order to begin getting federal appropriations immediately.
Another serious concern was that under the original Russian proposal, Europe would not share control over the design of the program and would be limited to being a small industrial contributor.
Roskosmos head Anatoliy Perminov reacted to the refusal by stating that Russia could push ahead with the Clipper project without European backing and mentioned China as a possible alternative partner.
However, that rhetoric did not last long.
Realizing that ESA participation is critical for the timely implementation of the project, Roskosmos has addressed the European concerns. In early 2006, Roskosmos launched a closed tender among Russian space industry companies for the construction of the Clipper manned spacecraft. The shortlist includes Energia Rocket and Space Corp. , Khrunichev Space Center, and Molnia Science and Production Association. According to Perminov, the winner will be announced by June.
To formalize the cooperative relations with the European Union in space exploration, in March 2006 high-ranking Russian and European Union officials met in Brussels. There, Anatoly Perminov and European Commission Vice-President Gunter Verheugen signed a joint declaration on enhancing cooperation in space. An implementing agreement also was signed by Jean-Jacques Dordain. The Roskosmos delegation put a special emphasis on seeking ESA contribution to the Clipper endeavor.
At the meetings in Brussels, ESA’s response sounded more optimistic than before. In early May, European industry and government officials indicated that some initial work on the Clipper project might be approved this year.
At its council meeting last December, ESA gave its members the June 2006 deadline to approve initial Clipper-related research. Although ESA officials say that the deadline may be extended to September, as of today, there are indications that more and more ESA governments are in favor of Clipper.
At this point, it is up to Russia to use the momentum and make participation in the project worthwhile for the Europeans. Although the desire of Roskosmos to maintain overall control of the program is understandable, the Russian space officials should be prepared to agree with ESA conditions for participation.
“At the moment we have to ask the Russians or ask the Americans to fly an astronaut,” says Alan Thirkettle, head of the ESA’s human spaceflight development department. “Through participation in the Clipper, we would have the right to seats when we want them. European industry would benefit, too, from Russia’s years of experience in human spaceflight. Russia, in return, would have access to certain technologies that are more sophisticated in Europe. It potentially is a fairly happy marriage.”
For their substantial contribution to the project, ESA should be guaranteed one or two seats per flight. Limiting ESA participation to “contribution to avionics, materials and cabin systems” as suggested by the Clipper chief designer Vladimir Taneev, most likely will not be enough to warrant seats aboard the spaceship on a regular basis.
The Europeans are interested in playing a technologically important role in developing the new spacecraft. For instance the German Space Center officials have stated that Germany would back the initial work on Clipper only if it is certain that the ESA will be involved critical vehicle technologies.
Roskosmos should also add more transparency in dialogue with its potential partners as to what missions exactly Clipper will be able to accomplish. As of today, it looks like its main mission is to replace the U.S. space shuttle as a principle spacecraft transporting astronauts and cargo to the space station. The shuttle is scheduled to retire in 2010, and the space station is supposed to be completed by 2015. Investing in a spacecraft that will serve only one mission for only five years may not look appealing to the Europeans. At the same time, exploration of the Moon and Mars is among ESA priorities, and it is interested in guaranteed rides.
Currently, there are more questions than answers when it comes to determining the prospects of a Russia-ESA cooperative in building the new transportation spacecraft. While NASA’s turning down ESA participation in the CEV program has definitely brought the Europeans closer to Clipper, long and thorny negotiations of the final deal are to be expected.
But the positive trend already is there — ESA has recently recognized Russian Soyuz rocket as one of the agency’s official launchers along with European carriers. Hopefully, the Soyuz’s successor will be another success story in the Roskosmos-ESA collaboration.
Victor Zaborsky is a senior research associate at the Center for International Trade and Security at the University of Georgia in Athens.