European Space Agency aims for its own version of SpaceX

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The European Space Agency has kicked off its effort to create a European version of SpaceX, choosing two companies on Wednesday to develop commercial cargo services to the International Space Station.

The Exploration Company, a French-German start-up founded just three years ago, and Thales Alenia Space, a French-Italian space systems supplier, beat several other candidates to win an initial financing of 25 million euros each to launch a build a commercially credible service at a low cost. -Earth orbit in 2028. A second round of funding, expected to amount to hundreds of thousands of euros, will be decided at the next ESA ministerial meeting in 2025.

The move marks ESA’s first concrete step in following a strategy pioneered by the US space agency NASA almost two decades ago, under which it will buy flight services from commercial companies rather than commission the development of rockets and spacecraft.

NASA’s strategy of awarding development funds followed by fixed-price service contracts was crucial to the success of Elon Musk’s SpaceX, today one of the world’s most reliable providers of launch, cargo and crew services to the ISS.

“The signing of the contracts for cargo return services in low Earth orbit shows how ESA has modernized to meet the demands of the next era of the space economy,” said Josef Aschbacher, ESA Director General, who has since his appointment has pushed for a more commercial approach. approach to procurement to help fuel the European space sector and reduce costs.

ESA hopes that the vehicles can even be adapted for human spaceflight or lunar missions.

“We want to have evolutionary capabilities that either enable manned transport to low Earth orbit or return cargo from the Lunar Gateway [the space station being developed by Nasa and partners which will orbit the Moon],” said Daniel Neuenschwander, ESA’s director of human and robotic exploration, in a recent interview with the Financial Times.

The strategy is based on NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program, launched in 2006. However, the amounts provided by ESA are much smaller than those that drove SpaceX’s success. NASA initially awarded more than $400 million to two companies, including SpaceX, to develop a vehicle capable of providing services to the ISS, and within two years had secured $3.4 billion in permanent contracts price agreed.

ESA has only €75 million available for this first phase. The €25 million not allocated in Wednesday’s announcement would be awarded to a third bidder, likely MaiaSpace, a subsidiary of France’s ArianeGroup.

However, the initial proposal was rejected and either the design will be revised or the balance will go to the two existing winners for additional proposals to improve the capabilities of their vehicles, a person with knowledge of the discussions said.

Even before ESA launched the cargo vehicle challenge last December, both TEC and Thales Alenia Space were working on their own cargo vehicle designs.

TEC, which has raised approximately $70 million in funding since its founding in 2021, said the contract was “a milestone” for its Nyx vehicle. ESA had become an anchor customer, which was important for NASA’s certification, the report said.

Thales Alenia Space said the cargo program came about “at a time when the space exploration landscape is rapidly evolving, with a mix of institutional and commercial players embarking on missions to explore low Earth orbit, the moon and Mars”. It was intended to “raise the bar on innovation and efficiency while strengthening the company’s role as a key player in the emerging space economy.”

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