Proposals for a European-built manned spacecraft have been formally unveiled in Berlin, with some backing from the German government. Backers of the plan hope to see the European Space Agency (ESA) using Euro technology to carry astronauts into orbit, rather than Russian Soyuz rockets.
As reported previously, the mock-up now on view at the Berlin Air Show is a modified "Jules Verne" Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) cargo module, of the type which has just begun carrying supplies to the International Space Station (ISS). Pan-European aerospace company EADS, whose space arm Astrium makes the ATV and the Ariane V heavy-lift rocket, hopes that the ESA will fund a manned Jules Verne and launch it using Ariane boosters.
"For us, this is about opening up options," Astrium's Frank Pohlemann told the BBC yesterday. "Instead of diving into studies and spending the next five or six years with no concrete development, what we propose is to do something now and open up options."
Astrium's proposal is first to modify the ATV so that it can return to Earth safely after a normal uncrewed cargo mission, carrying items down from the ISS. Lack of room for such return trips has recently compelled ISS crew to jettison large pieces of equipment into the Earth's atmosphere.
According to Pohlemann, the Jules Verne could be set up for re-entry by 2013 at a cost of "well below one billion" euros. It could then be converted to a three-seat manned ship by 2017, at a total cost "in the frame of a couple of billion" euros.
To date, when ESA manned missions have not taken advantage of NASA's good offices, Euro astronauts have ridden in Russian Soyuz ships. The ESA-Russia partnership is of long standing, and valuable to Russia - to the point where the permanent ESA delegation in Moscow has full diplomatic status.
However, the reputation of Russian Soyuz landers has suffered badly following two recent re-entries which followed an unplanned, much steeper than usual descent path and subjected astronauts to especially severe G forces. There can't be much doubt that many at the ESA - probably including most of the astronauts - would rather ride in a European or American ship at the moment.
Seeking to offset this perception, the Russian space agency Roskosmos went so far as to announce that the ESA planned a new generation of Euro-Russian ships for manned Moon missions last month - just days after news of the Jules Verne mod plans broke, funnily enough. However, for its part the ESA was more reserved, saying that no decision on joint plans with Russia had been made.
The signs are that the German government at least is willing to offer some support for EADS Astrium's notion of an all-Euro manned ship, though even Germany may not be willing to stump up much cash. Support for manned spaceflight - in terms of actual money, certainly - has always been weak in Europe.
If the Russians can offer a cheap enough deal, they would certainly still seem to be in the running. This will be even more the case if they can sort out the re-entry snags on the Soyuz effectively. In the end, the Astrium ATV blueprint may be used, but as a bargaining tool in Moscow rather than an actual spaceship. ®