The heads of two of Europe’s three biggest space agencies want the European Space Agency (ESA) to begin a long-term program that would lead to an independent European capability to send astronauts into space.
Neither Johann-Dietrich Woerner, chairman of the German aerospace center, DLR, nor Italian Space Agency President Giovanni Bignami provided indications of how much money they would have at their disposal to invest in a European crew-transport capability. But their remarks here May 28 at the Berlin air show, ILA 2008, and comments by ESA officials suggested that European government ministers may be presented with such a proposal when they meet in late November to set a multiyear space plan.
In a May 28 interview, Woerner also said Germany is supporting a proposal to modify Europe’s unmanned Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) so it can
return cargo to Earth after delivering supplies to the international space station.
Some officials say it would cost no more than 300 million euros ($473 million) to add a heat shield to the ATV and make other adjustments to its shell that would give it
a re-entry capability.
The first ATV is currently in the midst of its inaugural mission, which began after
a flawless automatic docking with the international space station
April 3. Once its supplies are transferred to the station, the ATV
will be filled with garbage, undocked and guided to a spot in orbit where it will make its destructive re-entry over the South Pacific Ocean.
ESA owes NASA four other ATVs as part of a barter arrangement. The
next ATV mission is scheduled to be launched in 2010.
For Woerner, modifying ATV to permit a cargo-return function would be the first step in a gradual evolution of the vehicle over a decade that could lead to further refinements that would allow it to transport crews to and from
Addressing a space-policy conference here May 28, Bignami said bluntly that “a real space power must be able to send its own people into space.” He urged that ESA begin the effort.
France, ESA’s biggest contributor,
has not weighed in on the issue. CNES President Yannick d’Escatha appeared on the same panel as Woerner and Bignami, but
did not mention manned flight in his list of priorities. To pass financial muster, any big-ticket program at ESA must have the support France, Germany and Italy, which together contribute half of the 17-nation agency’s annual budget.
ESA Director-General Jean-Jacques Dordain said during a panel discussion here May 28 that Europe’s dependence on Russia and NASA for crew transport and cargo return ought to be ended. But Dordain already is preparing a long list of spending items for the November ministerial conference. Whether the ATV modification will survive the inevitable budget arbitrage remains unclear.
At their last ministerial conference in December 2005, European governments asked ESA to study whether a crew-transport vehicle could be developed with Russia in a way that includes no exchange of funds and ends in a joint venture – not a relationship of senior to junior partner.
It took ESA months to organize an industrial team to lead Europe’s proposals, and at various times in the past two and a half years, Russia has balked at committing to a 50-50 effort in which no ESA funds flow to Russia.
Things have changed in recent weeks, according to Daniel Sacotte, ESA’s director of human spaceflight, microgravity and exploration. In a May 30 interview, Sacotte said the ATV docking has had the effect of forcing Russia to consider that Europe might go it alone on manned flight, starting with the ATV.
Sacotte said that the ATV’s success, and the approach of the November ministerial meeting, have given both Russia and ESA added motivation to conclude an agreement. The tentative result, he said, is a cone-shaped capsule whose lower composite is derived from the ATV service module and upper half is based on Russian designs.
“One interesting new aspect of our recent talks is that the Russians have agreed that European companies will participate in the capsule design and manufacture, and Russian companies will take part in the service module,” Sacotte said. “This is a good approach, and means that, in principle, each side is on the critical path of the other’s work. Negotiations have gone much more quickly with them since the ATV docking. It’s possible that they view us more seriously now.”
Sacotte declined to speculate on how much it would cost to modify the ATV.
“It’s too early for estimates,” he said. “Keep in mind that if we embark on this route, we will be making changes to the ATV that might not be necessary for cargo return, but ultimately will be needed if we take the evolution further toward a crew capability. These investments will need to be made from the start, and right now I don’t have solid figures on what it would cost.”