ESA allocates 50 million euros for the creation of a cargo spacecraft

On Wednesday, the European Space Agency (ESA) selected two companies to develop a cargo spacecraft that would provide the continent with sovereign access to space. Among the winners: the leading aerospace company Thales Alenia Space and the French startup The Exploration Company.

The hull of the future cargo spacecraft for ESA. Photo: The Exploration Company

Both companies will receive 25 million euros each to develop concepts for vehicles capable of transporting cargo to and from low Earth orbit. The initial stage will last until 2026, after which additional contracts are expected to be concluded.

The goal is for at least one capsule to make a demonstration flight to the International Space Station (ISS) in 2028. Further plans are for the cargo transportation service to be available online by the end of the decade.

Europe now relies on international partners who deliver cargo and crews to space through a barter system. However, with the ISS nearing the end of its life and the emergence of private space stations, Europe will have to pay for access to space. 

The contract for the return of cargo to Earth orbit was concluded to invest in European industrial potential. Cargo transportation can become a stepping stone to the possibility of manned transportation, for example, as SpaceX’s Dragon capsule has a crew and cargo version.

The cargo return contract, which was first announced last year, resembles NASA’s commercial orbital transportation services program, created in 2006. The result of this program was multibillion-dollar service contracts for SpaceX and Orbital Sciences Corporation (part of Northrop Grumman).

NASA eventually paid hundreds of millions of dollars to both competitors for the development of their spacecraft – Cargo Dragon from SpaceX and Cygnus from Northrop. Therefore, the ESA will have to actively lobby to get the funds needed to finance these spacecraft for the rest of the decade.

The Exploration Company’s CEO, Hélène Huby, said their Nyx capsule was designed to serve the ISS, future private space stations and NASA’s Gateway orbiting lunar platform. The French startup has raised about USD 65 million from venture capital investors to develop its vehicle, and the first flight is scheduled for 2026.

Earlier, we reported on how the Starliner would be launched into space with a helium leak.

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