Europe is trying to emulate NASA’s revolutionary commercial cargo program

Enlarge / A rendering of the European cargo return vehicle proposed by Thales Alenia Space.

Thales Alecia Space

The European Space Agency has awarded initial contracts to a Germany-based startup and one of the continent’s established aerospace companies to develop spacecraft that can carry cargo to and from space stations in low Earth orbit.

ESA announced the two contracts worth 25 million euros ($27 million) on May 22. The Exploration Company, based in France and Germany, and Thales Alenia Space of Italy defeated four other companies in the battle for ESA funding through the LEO Cargo Return Service program.

These contracts have a duration of two years, until June 2026. In this first phase of the program, The Exploration Company and Thales Alenia Space will refine their concepts, develop technologies and focus on the requirements for their cargo vehicles. ESA plans to award contracts for the second phase of the LEO Cargo Return Service program in 2026, with a view to a round-trip demonstration flight to the International Space Station (ISS) in 2028.

The Exploration Company, founded in 2021, says its cargo carrier Nyx could fly to the space station as early as 2027. Thales Alenia Space’s demonstration mission is scheduled for late 2028, the company said in a statement. The Exploration Company plans to fly a sub-scale reentry vehicle on the maiden flight of Europe’s Ariane 6 rocket in July. Thales Alenia Space did not build a reentry craft, but manufactured pressurized grenades for various modules in the ISS.

ESA requirements stipulate that European commercial cargo vehicles must be capable of delivering 4 tons of equipment into low Earth orbit and returning 2 tons to Earth.

ESA originally wanted to select three companies to continue with the European cargo program. Samantha Cristoforetti, an ESA astronaut leading the tender, said only the two winners presented “a combination of work plan and financing plan suitable for the purposes of this call.”

Cristoforetti told Ars that ESA has received “six valid proposals” from European industry. She declined to identify the other competitors, but two of the proposals were believed to have come from ArianeGroup and Rocket Factory Augsburg.

A partial commitment

Representatives from ESA’s 22 member states met last November in Seville, Spain, to decide on several priorities for the space agency. The meeting resulted in a number of important decisions. Member states agreed to adopt a more commercial model for purchasing launch services from European rocket startups in the future, although ESA remains all-in on the long-delayed Ariane 6 and Vega C rockets in the short term.

European governments have also signed the first phase of the LEO Cargo Return Service, but the initial €25 million contracts signed with The Exploration Company and Thales Alenia Space will only go so far. At the next high-level budget meeting at the end of next year, ESA will ask Member States for the remainder of the funding needed to advance the program through the demonstration flights to the ISS.

ESA operates in budget cycles that typically last three years. This ensures stable funding for the agency’s programs, but could hinder the kind of rapid changes that characterize startup culture. Nevertheless, in November ESA Director General Josef Aschbacher received permission from his member states to use part of ESA funding to collaborate with industry in the field of commercial freight vehicles.

“We want to be on the space station around ’28,” Aschbacher said in a press conference on May 23. “We now have to evaluate the technical proposals and capabilities in detail, but this is extremely fast, and is actually faster than some of our foreign competitors have managed to build such a vehicle.”

Aschbacher seems to take it seriously to make ESA more agile. However, the agency’s budget and direction are determined by European ministers, through the prism of parochial domestic politics.

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