BREMEN, Germany — Startup Rocket Factory Augsburg perceive an historic shift has occurred in Europe launch, just as the firm closes in on its first orbital launch attempt.

Ministers at the European Space Summit in Seville, Spain, last week launched a new competitive approach to space transportation. This approach aims to empower commercial companies and reduce reliance on public funding. The European Space Agency will in the future act as an anchor customer for commercial space activities and services. 

The shift aims to address a “launcher crisis” caused in part by lengthy delays in the development of Ariane 6.

“The Seville decision for us is very good,” Jörn Spurmann, chief commercial officer at Rocket Factory Augsburg (RFA), told SpaceNews at Space Tech Expo Europe in Bremen.

 “It seems like an historic moment that ESA decides it doesn’t want to develop its own systems anymore in the future, but try to save money, privatize it, and support a few companies trying to achieve it. And that’s obviously perfect for us.”

The shift to a competitive, services model has been praised by officials, though questions remain

RFA has focused on developing its RFA One small launcher since the company’s inception in 2018. The European launch “paradigm shift” means RFA can now also begin to think bigger. Spurmann says a medium or heavy lift system could follow, building on the RFA One.

Another new avenue of opportunity is ESA’s commercial cargo program, also announced in Seville. RFA had two months earlier announced a consortium to develop Argo, a cargo service to the ISS and future commercial space stations. Spurmann says meeting the 2028 deadline set by ESA is achievable, but challenging.

For now though, the focus 100 percent on the company’s first launch, Spurmann states. The three-stage, 30-meter-tall and 2-meter- diameter RFA One uses kerosene-liquid oxygen staged combustion Helix engines. It targets a deployment capability of up to 1,300 kilograms to a 500-kilometer polar orbit. It can alternatively carry 450 kg to geostationary transfer orbit.

“We’re confident. We have completed the full duration hot fire of the second stage in May and repeated it several times. The team can see the finish line. The core stage is essentially just a larger version of what we did with the second stage, because it’s all the same technologies, structures, engines. It’s just more and bigger.”

“We’re working on completing the core stage, completing the launch site, and then getting the tests together towards Q1 next year.”

The launch of RFA is set to take place at SaxaVord Spaceport in Scotland’s Shetland Islands. The UK Space Agency recently committed $4.3 million to assist RFA’s preparatory efforts for its first flight. 

Targeted for summer 2024, the launch could position both RFA and SaxaVord Spaceport as significant players in the emerging European commercial launch services ecosystem.

Andrew Jones covers China's space industry for SpaceNews. Andrew has previously lived in China and reported from major space conferences there. Based in Helsinki, Finland, he has written for National Geographic, New Scientist, Smithsonian Magazine, Sky...