ESA prepares for post-ISS era, selects exploration company, Thales Alenia, to develop cargo spacecraft

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The European Space Agency on Wednesday selected two companies to advance the design of cargo spacecraft that could provide the continent’s first sovereign access to space.

The two award winners, leading aerospace prime Thales Alenia Space and French startup The Exploration Company, will receive €25 million ($27 million) each to advance concepts for vehicles that can carry cargo to and from stations in low Earth orbit. This initial phase will last until 2026, after which additional competitive contract opportunities are expected. The aim is to have at least one capsule conduct a demonstration flight to the International Space Station (ISS) in 2028 and have a cargo transport service online by the end of the decade.

Right now Europe relies on its international partners to carry cargo and crew into space “through a barter system,” the space agency explained when announcing the LEO cargo return service contracts last year. But the imminent decommissioning of the International Space Station and the rise of privately owned space stations mean Europe will no longer have a meaningful way to barter, and will instead have to pay cash to access space.

The LEO Cargo Return Service contract was set up with the hope that that cash could be invested in European industrial capability. The cargo service could also become a stepping stone to a crew transport capability, similar to how SpaceX’s Dragon capsule has a crew-only and cargo-only version.

“It prepares us for the post-ISS era, strengthens the competitiveness of European industry in operations in low Earth orbit, as well as being a test case for how ESA can change and do things differently,” Daniel Neuenschwander, ESA’s director of human and robotic exploration, said in a statement.

The LEO Cargo Return Services contract, first announced last year, is similar to NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program, which was established in 2006. That program resulted in lucrative, multibillion-dollar service contracts with SpaceX and Orbital Sciences Corporation (now part of Northrop Grumman).

However, NASA has paid both competitors hundreds of millions of dollars to develop their respective capsules — SpaceX’s Cargo Dragon and now Northrop’s Cygnus — so the agency will need to do more lobbying to ensure it gets the money it needs to fund these capsules for the rest of the decade.

Its capsule, called Nix, is being designed to serve the International Space Station, upcoming private space stations and NASA’s orbital lunar platform Gateway, said Helen Huby, CEO of the exploration company. The French startup has raised about $65 million from venture capitalists for its vehicle design, and the first flight is on track for 2026, Huby confirmed in a recent interview.

“This contract is just the beginning,” Huby said.

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