European astronauts want their own spacecraft after decades of reliance on Russia, NASA, SpaceX

ESA astronauts want the space agency to build its own crewed spacecraft, reducing dependence on rides from SpaceX, NASA, and Russia. (ESA - Marcus Lindroos / NASA - Mike Hopkins)

On February 16th, the European Space Agency (ESA) held the European Space Summit in Toulouse, France, offering European Space Agency leaders and European Union (EU) member states an opportunity to discuss the present and future of European spaceflight.

The central idea circulating the summit was evident: Europe wants to reassert itself as a global leader in space exploration. While ESA and member states continue to make exceptional contributions to robotic space exploration and – to a lesser degree – rocketry, leaders at the summit believe that there is still a large amount of untapped potential within the European space industry. ESA hopes to fill these gaps while tackling the societal, economic, and security challenges that come along with it. The ESA’s goal is to grow as a space fairing nation and compete side by side with the United States, Russia, and China on all fronts – including the possible creation of their own domestic human spaceflight program.

ESA Director-General Josef Aschbacher was encouraged to speak on the subject, stating that “I am very happy to accept President Macron’s proposal to establish a high-level advisory group on ‘human space exploration for Europe’.” “This decision will shape what Europe will look like in the decade to come. We have to involve experts from all walks of life and mainly from non-space, for example, historians, economists, geopolitical experts, explorers on Earth, and philosophers to fully grasp all its implications and help us take [sic] the right decision.”

Organizations such as the European Association of Space Explorers (ASE) have strong opinions on the future of the European Space Agency. The ASE represents the over 45 European astronauts and cosmonauts who have been flying to space since 1978 – including several ESA astronauts that most recently flew to and from the Internation Space Station on SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket and aboard Crew Dragon.

Released in a three-page manifesto titled, “EUROPEAN ASTRONAUTS’ MANIFESTO ON THE OCCASION OF THE EUROPEAN SPACE SUMMIT”, the organization expressed its passion for human spaceflight and wrote to encourage the ESA to further develop a program that might one day allow the European Union to launch its own astronauts.

“A Europe that projects itself as a leading society must have the capabilities to set its own goals, and to decide for itself how far it wants to go in space exploration, united in our European values,” the document stated. “We now have a unique window of opportunity to accelerate and become a fully recognized partner of the global space endeavor.” An advisory group has been put together by the ESA to further explore these possibilities and is set to report back to the ESA on their findings at the next ESA Council of Ministers held in November 2022. 

“Between now and summer, we want to come up with more specific European targets and ambitions for manned space travel,” he said through an interpreter. “We need to know what our priorities are, have the data to back it up and prepare the choices we are going to take for the November [ESA] ministerial meeting.”, stated Aschbacher. ESA has repeatedly attempted to develop its own crewed spacecraft in the past, including the “Crew Rescue Vehicle” (one variant shown in the header image), Crew Space Transport System, and Hermes spaceplane.

Among the conversations of human spaceflight, the summit also revealed additional initiatives the ESA plans to focus on as they further develop a more independent space program. 

The ESA presented three “accelerators” or objectives that they aim to focus on while ramping up their space program. “Space for a Green Future”, “Rapid and Resilliant Crisis Response”, and “Protection of Space Assets”. According to the ESA, the three programs are described as the following:

“Space for a Green Future” aims to use data derived from Earth observation satellites to help Europe act to mitigate climate change and to support reaching a carbon-neutral economy by mid-century. 

“Rapid and Resilient Crisis Response” seeks to better use space data, cognitive cloud computing, and intelligent interconnectivity in space to support those in charge to provide the vital responses to crises on Earth.

“Protection of Space Assets” will contribute to preventing damage to the European space infrastructure and avoid disruption to its economically vital infrastructures such as power supplies and communications links due to space weather conditions. 

European astronauts want their own spacecraft after decades of reliance on Russia, NASA, SpaceX
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