Europe seeks to emulate NASA’s revolutionary commercial cargo program

Enlarge / A rendering of the European cargo reentry 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 carry cargo to and from space stations in low Earth orbit.

ESA announced the two €25 million ($27 million) contracts on May 22. Exploration Company, with shared headquarters in France and Germany, and Thales Alenia Space of Italy beat four other companies in the competition for ESA funding through the LEO cargo return service. program.

These contracts will last for two years, until June 2026. In this first phase of the program, The Exploration Company and Thales Alenia Space will refine their concepts, mature technologies and focus on the requirements of 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 Nyx cargo transporter could fly to the space station as early as 2027. Thales Alenia Space’s demonstration mission is planned for late 2028, the company said in a statement. The Exploration Company plans to fly a subscale reentry vehicle on the first flight of the European Ariane 6 rocket in July. Thales Alenia Space has not built a reentry craft, but it did make pressure casings for several ISS modules.

ESA requirements stipulate that European commercial cargo vehicles must be able to deliver 4 tons of equipment to low Earth orbit and return 2 tons to Earth.

Initially, ESA wanted to select three companies to continue the European cargo program. Samantha Cristoforetti, an ESA astronaut leading the acquisition effort, said only the two winners “submitted a combination of work plan and financing scheme that were suitable for the purposes of this call.”

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

A partial commitment

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

European governments have also signed up to 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 its next high-level budget meeting late next year, ESA will ask its member states for the remainder of the funding needed to take the program through demonstration flights to the ISS.

The ESA works on budget cycles that typically last three years. This helps ensure stable funding for agency programs, but can hinder the kind of rapid change emblematic of startup culture. However, Josef Aschbacher, director general of the ESA, in November won approval from its member states to use some of the ESA funding to partner with industry on commercial cargo vehicles.

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

Aschbacher seems serious about making ESA more agile. However, the agency’s budget and direction are set by European government ministers through the prism of provincial domestic politics.

Leave a Comment