Europe Seeks SpaceX-style Cargo Missions to Orbit


The European space industry, lagging behind other industry players, is now seeking its own commercial vehicles that can transport cargo to the International Space Station (ISS) and future low Earth orbit destinations.

The European Space Agency (ESA) sent out a call for private European space companies to develop ideas for cargo transport vehicles that can travel to low Earth orbit, the space agency recently announced. “ESA and its Member States are preparing for when the International Space Station is retired: an environment where space agencies are customers rather than owners of space infrastructure,” Frank De Winne, ESA’s ISS manager, said in a statement.

Companies are being asked to submit proposals for commercial cargo transportation vehicles that can carry up to 4,400 pounds (2 metric tons) of pressurized cargo to the ISS by late 2028 for a test mission, later returning back to Earth with at least 2,200 pounds (1 metric ton) of cargo, ESA wrote.

“By launching this call, we are providing the supporting scheme, whereby private companies receive support from ESA to develop services to the International Space Station and future commercial destinations orbiting Earth,” De Winne said in the statement.

NASA has been working with its own commercial partner, SpaceX, to transport both cargo and crew to the ISS on a regular basis. SpaceX launched its sixth crewed mission to the space station in March while its 28th cargo mission lifted off Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Monday. SpaceX uses its trusty Dragon capsule for these missions, and now Europe wants something similar.

Europe has been struggling to establish its own access to low Earth orbit, which has been getting busier with both public and private vehicles. The European space sector was recently forced to turn to SpaceX for use of its Falcon 9 rocket after it cut ties with Russia following the invasion of Ukraine.

Developing a cargo capsule is one challenge, finding a rocket to launch that capsule is another. ESA was betting on the debut of the European Ariane 6 rocket, which was originally scheduled to debut in 2020, but its inaugural flight was recently pushed to the fourth quarter of 2023. The expendable rocket is meant to replace its predecessor, Ariane 5, which is no longer in production, leaving Europe with little to no options for getting to space. Adding to its rocket woes, Arianespace’s Vega-C rocket suffered a malfunction in December 2022 that resulted in its launches getting suspended. This was just a few months after Vega-C’s long awaited debut, which was meant to fill the gap in the European market.

Although Europe remains in desperate need of a launch vehicle, ESA’s efforts to engage the private sector in getting to low Earth orbit is the latest attempt to foster a relationship with private partners. As the space industry continues to evolve, Europe needs to pick up the pace when it comes to building those connections and supporting the commercial sector.

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