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Above: The European concept of Advanced Reentry Vehicle has emerged at the end of 2008.

During the 1990s, the European Space Agency developed and flight-tested a small unmanned capsule, known as Atmospheric Reentry Demonstrator. The agency revisited the concept a decade later, as European hopes for building a next-generation spacecraft in cooperation with Russia had hit political snags.

The Russian-European space cooperation to face moment of truth

Published: 2008 March 16

The European Space Agency, ESA, will continue advancing its manned space program with or without Russian cooperation, Europe’s space chief said. Speaking to reporters in Kourou, French Guiana, a few hours before a successful launch of the continent’s new-generation ATV spacecraft, Jean-Jacques Dordain, ESA's Director General, said that Europe would pursue new directions in manned space flight, however the pace of any such program would depend heavily on the ability of Europe and Russia to pull resources.

Dordain then stressed that human space flight would not be conducted at the expense of ESA’s unmanned missions, such as studies of the Earth climate. "I believe one day we will have a next-generation crew transportation system, however we do have other priorities," Dordain said. The ESA chief quoted a popular argument often used in debate on space flight that the Moon was there for millions of years and its exploration could wait for few decades, while the threats of climate change should be dealt with urgently.

Considering the virtual immunity of unmanned programs from any budgetary cuts, Dordain singled out cooperation with Russia as the only route to a wider-scope and faster-paced program of human space flight in Europe. However, Dordain stressed that Europe would enter any joint venture in the field only as an equal partner. This was a reaction to recent efforts by the Russians to take all major roles in the development of the next-generation manned spacecraft, known as ACTS, essentially leaving Europe to bankroll the project.

Dordain emphasized that cooperation does not mean "transmission of funds" from Europe to Russia, and that Russian and European space industries would have to share the development of key elements of the vehicle.

Although both Russian and European officials insisted that they could still reach a deal on the combined development of the future spacecraft, both sides appeared preparing to take their separate ways, in case the cooperation was deemed impossible.

According to Daniel Sacotte, Director for Human Spaceflight at ESA, the two sides still agree that the development of the new transport system for lunar exploration would be very expensive and, therefore, Russia and Europe should be interested in its joint development. "The concept is still on the table," Sacotte said, "However is it politically acceptable for Russia? We will see."

The ACTS project might have fallen victim of the Russian government’s own policies. As the Russian economy recovered from the post-Soviet crisis, the Russian government wasted no time in confronting the West on a number of political issues. Simultaneously, the Russian state-controlled media unleashed a massive anti-western propaganda, accusing the West of various anti-Russian conspiracies. Under such a climate, the ACTS project quickly became a political "hot potato," seen by many in Russia as a "surrender" of Russian independence in manned space flight. Not coincidently, at the beginning of 2008, when the time had come to discuss the rights and responsibilities of Russia and Europe in the ACTS project, Russian officials apparently demanded all major development roles in the project for the Russian space industry.

Obviously, Europe wanted an equal role in the project and was not interested in paying scarce space euros for a Russian-led enterprise.

Going it alone: Reentry demonstrator

In case, Europe would fail to strike a deal with the Russians, ESA officials drafted a "going it alone" plan. Capitalizing on the success of the ATV program, European developers revisited the old idea of replacing the ship’s cargo section with a retrievable crew module.

“What we believe is that we need to make something simple,” Sacotte said. The solution would be a reentry demonstrator, launched by the Ariane-5 rocket. According to Sacotte, the agency plans to propose this concept to the European ministerial conference in November 2008, when it holds its once in every three years meeting to consider the space budget. If approved, the vehicle could fly within five-six years, Sacotte said. It is likely the vehicle would be a cone-shaped, similar to the historic Apollo spacecraft and NASA's next-generation Orion crew module.

Beyond this first step, Europe would still have to make major investments into its manned space program if it wants to build a full-fledged space transportation system. European space officials identified "man-rating" the Ariane-5 rocket, as one of the most expensive aspects of such an effort. The "man-rating process" includes outfitting the rocket with extensive diagnostics and analysis avionics, which could detect the impeding failure of crucial systems onboard and trigger a crew escape mechanism during launch. "It might cost a lot, but it is a possibility," Sacotte said.

To complicate things further, the Ariane-5 would probably need a new launch pad in Kourou, dedicated to the manned space program, since the only available facility is being heavily used for commercial missions.  Even then, with the Ariane-5’s current capabilities, the ATV-derived manned ship could only reach low-Earth orbit. For deep-space missions, assembly in the Earth orbit would be required, along with the likely development of a next-generation heavy-lifting rocket.

"Is this (plan) interesting to the Russian space industry or not remains to be seen, but it is a part of the discussion," Sacotte said, “What we want to do is to make the next step in the manned space flight with or without Russia."

European industry unveils a manned spacecraft proposal

Published: 2008 May 29; updated June 5

At the ILA-2008 air and space show in Berlin, Europe's chief aerospace company EADS Astrium unveiled a full-scale mockup of a three-seat vehicle, designed to enter the Earth orbit and eventually support lunar missions. The proposal serves as an insurance policy for the European space program, in case an ongoing effort to reach an agreement with Russia on the cooperative development of a much larger next-generation spacecraft does not materialize. "We are fully aware that in parallel within Russia there are studies and discussions about an autonomous follow-on systems for crew transport," says Dr. Frank Pohlemann, Vice President of Strategy and Market Development at EADS Astrium, "...Europe is now entering a similar phase. Both sides have autonomous options and both sides have an option to cooperate."

EADS Astrium launched a fast-track study at the end of 2007, as an industry initiative and without a formal approval from the European Space Agency, ESA. The company hoped that a full-scale mockup would serve as a demonstration of the continent's newly acquired prowess in the field of manned spacecraft. The project entered the scene on the heels of a successful launch of the European ATV cargo ship previous March and the delivery of the continent's Columbus laboratory to the International Space Station two months earlier. According to Cristian Bank, the head of ISS extensions at EADS Astrium, Europeans are still fully committed to reaching a deal with the Russians, while at the same time sending a signal to their potential partners about the continent's ultimate goal to reach a capability in the field of manned space flight one way or another. "It is not meant to replace the ACTS cooperation... it is what Europe can do alone, if we do not have the cooperation (on the ACTS)," Bank said, "and of course the ACTS is much more advanced (in development) because we have already studied it for one a half years."

According to Pohlemann, Europe could achieve manned space flight capabilities with relatively modest resources and in a relatively short period of time. The cargo version of the retrievable capsule could fly within four years and a three-seat manned spacecraft could be launched in nine years. It will be up to political leaders in Europe to decide on the goals and the scope of the program, Pohlemann. Unlike Russian space program, which historically puts an emphasis on manned spacecraft, European Space Agency focuses on applications in space, with manned space flight programs constituting only around 15 percent of its budget.

Even as a proposal, the EADS initiative promises considerably less capabilities than those built-in in the Russian-European ACTS project. The capsule's main diameter is smaller than the one planned for the ACTS spacecraft and as a result, its crew is limited to three people, instead of six in the ACTS project. The vehicle's initial missions would be restricted to the near-Earth orbit. The proposed spacecraft would be launched by the existing Ariane-5 rocket, using available launch facilities in French Guiana. As first presented in May 2008, the ship would have a mass between 11 and 12 tons, including the crew escape system. Since the Ariane-5 rocket can lift up to 20 tons to the low-Earth orbit, the spacecraft has a room to grow, for example to include a habitation or a cargo module, or carry more fuel for missions beyond the ISS, Bank said.

The habitation module would be placed below the main body of the spacecraft, inside the transfer section connecting it to the rocket. After reaching the orbit, the ship with the crew would separate from the rocket, then turn around and dock to the habitation section, which would be still attached to the upper stage of the launch vehicle. The spacecraft would then undock from the upper stage, this time carrying the habitation module with it. Given a relatively small size of two spacecraft, a simplified low-impact docking system could be used to connect two modules. However, a standard docking system would be required to link up the spacecraft with the station.

The vehicle could start flying unmanned, serving as a retrievable cargo ship. As such mission would need no 2.5-ton crew escape system, a cargo module of the same mass could be placed on top of the reentry capsule.

To mount a mission into the lunar obit, three additional Ariane-5 rockets would required. Two rockets would deliver orbital tugs powered by hydrazine propellants suitable for long-term storage, whose job would be to maneuver the 11-ton manned vehicle on the way to the Moon, insert it into the lunar orbit and send it back toward Earth. Yet, another Ariane-5 would launch the so-called escape stage powered by liquid hydrogen-liquid oxygen propellant. Its task will be sending the entire stack of the manned spacecraft and the orbital tugs from the Earth orbit toward the Moon. European officials emphasized that it is only a reference mission, based on the capabilities of the existing Ariane-5 rocket and any plans for actual landing on the surface of the Moon, would require the development of a more powerful launch vehicle, most likely in the framework of cooperation with Russia. Under one scenario, the European spacecraft would dock to the lunar orbital station or with the lander to transfer the crew for a following excursion on the lunar surface.

"For Europeans it would already be maximum to go to the lunar orbit, Bank said, and then we have reached the limit for this system." The officials also pointed out that the ACTS program remains a high priority for the European Space Agency and the political leadership would be unlikely to fund two parallel programs.

Russia, Europe to go separate ways in manned spaceflight

Published: 2008 Nov. 16

After years of negotiations, Russian and European space officials came to conclusion that both sides should build their own spacecraft to carry next-generation astronauts.

In a document issued on Oct. 28, 2008, Human Spaceflight Directorate of the European Space Agency, ESA, outlined a number of political and engineering reasons why the cooperation with the Russian space agency, Roskosmos, “does not appear at this stage as attractive as initially projected.”

Although Europe and Russia have been negotiating the joint development of the Advanced Crew Transportation System, ACTS, since the summer of 2007, the lack of Technology Safeguard Agreement between two sides "prevented the necessary exchange of technical information beyond the conceptual level," ESA said.

As a result, the European hope to make the future spacecraft compatible with ESA’s Ariane-5 rocket, concurrently with a yet-to-be developed Russian launcher, could not be studied thoroughly. However even most basic specifications provided by the Russians convinced Europeans that the optimization of the new spacecraft for both rockets would be impossible.

To make matters worse, Russians rejected an ESA concept of adapting the service module of the European ATV cargo ship for the new spacecraft as too heavy for their future launcher and employing toxic propellants.

At the same time, the Russian goal of making the crew capsule reusable meant that it would contain all critical and sophisticated avionics, leaving the European-built service module to carry power-supply systems and propellant tanks, the European documents claimed. (A released architecture of the ACTS spacecraft, showed the service module carrying the main propulsion system as well.)

Beyond engineering disagreements and technology transfer issues, Russia and Europe could not agree how to divide the production of the future spacecraft, or how to pay each other within the project, a European document said. Since all similar problems have been previously resolved within the International Space Station, ISS, program, the overall lack of willingness to reach an agreement was apparent. An aggressive posture of the resurgent Russia toward its former republics, European allies and the United States provided an unpleasant backdrop to already difficult negotiations on the ACTS project.

Way forward

Despite unfavorable climate for joint development of the next-generation spacecraft, Europe and Russia still saw scenarios for cooperation in manned space flight. Using already established liaisons within the ATV project, two sides could continue sub-contracting systems and components for their respective future ships. Russia had previously expressed interest in European technologies, such as fault-tolerant computers, displays and reusable thermal protection systems. Europe could barter such components for Russian hardware or for the access to the Russian segment of the ISS by European astronauts.

The development of two independent transport systems in Europe and Russia could benefit future space exploration strategies, especially, if two sides choose to explore deep space and, simultaneously, to maintain presence in the low-Earth orbit. Two systems could back each other up in case of emergency and support cooperative missions, while providing overall independence. Theoretically, all countries involved in manned space flight could agree on common rendezvous and docking mechanisms and compatible life-support systems.

Europe’s roadmap to space

Although recent depictions of the ACTS spacecraft reflected the Russian vision of the future vehicle, European approach toward its independent access to space can now be discerned.

Despite several aborted attempts to build the continent’s manned spacecraft, the successful inauguration of the ATV spacecraft this year brought Europe closer than ever to launching a man in space.      

"Free" from Russian requirements, ESA can base its future spacecraft on the ATV cargo ship, which is already integrated with the Ariane-5 rocket. The most critical technology yet to be acquired by Europe would be the crew reentry capsule. To achieve that, ESA had proposed the Advanced Reentry Vehicle, which would return its first cargo from space in 2015 and carry first European astronauts into orbit in 2020. A cone-shaped crew capsule measuring 4.4-meters in diameter would be capable of carrying four astronauts.

As a stepping stone toward a full-scale crew capsule, on June 4, 2008, ESA approved the development of the Experimental Reentry Test-bed, EXPERT, -- a cone-shaped capsule. Scheduled for launch onboard the Russian ballistic missile from a submerged submarine in June 2010, the vehicle would help engineers to gather necessary data and experience. This roadmap has to be approved at the critical ministerial meeting of the European ministers in November 2008.

European manned space faces financial, political uncertainty

Published: 2008 Oct. 15; updated Oct. 16; 2009 June 26

During 2008, a global financial crisis, which has shaken the European banking system, diminished the continent's space ambitions as well. According to sources in Europe, in the fall of 2008, Jean-Jacques Dordain, the head of European Space Agency, ESA, had ordered severe and large-scale cuts in the continent's space budget, which was to be submitted for approval by the European ministers at a crucial "space summit" in November of that year. The agency reportedly planned to slash as much as 40 percent from its previously anticipated funding, leaving a number of space projects without any money at all. Europe's nascent ambitions in manned space flight were expected to be the first casualty of the latest budget crunch. Anticipated funding for a previously announced plans to upgrade the ATV cargo ship, possibly converting it into a manned vehicle, plunged to zero in at least one draft of a revised budget, sources said.

In addition, plans to develop follow-on versions of the Vega launcher were canceled and a high-profile ExoMars project aiming to send a life-searching rover to the Red Planet was scaled down to a minimum budget.

If approved, budget cuts would likely kill all prospects for Russian-European cooperation in the development of a next-generation manned spacecraft. A number of top Russian space officials have already made statements indicating that the country would rely solely on domestic resources to build the new ship.

The 2008 financial crisis required massive government infusions of cash into the failing banking system and triggered urgent search for budget cuts across the European Union. In such a climate, manned space flight, often considered a luxury by many European politicians, would be the first target to save money. In 2005, a previous ministerial conference essentially rejected ESA's bid to develop the Kliper reusable orbiter in cooperation with Russia. In case, the manned space program is deferred again in November 2008, ESA would not have another chance to launch a major space initiative until the next ministerial meeting in 2011.

Ultimately, during a ministerial meeting in November 2008, member states of the European Space Agency, ESA, downgraded the development of the continent's manned spacecraft to a feasibility study of the cargo return vehicle. The decision pushed the possible first launch of a cargo reentry capsule to at least 2017 and of a man-rated vehicle to around 2020.

Phase A of the ARD project

As a first step in the development of a return vehicle, ESA planned by the end of July 2009 to award a 14-million Euro contract to EADS Astrium for the so-called Phase A phase of the project -- essentially a definition study of the ATV-based transport. Both, ESA and EADS Astrium officials said in June 2009, that the development would take into consideration a possibility of eventual upgrade of the cargo return capsule into a four-seat crew vehicle. However, any essential moves toward the development of the manned spacecraft remained to be approved by Europe's political establishment and such decision could depend heavily on the fate of the International Space Station and ESA involvement in the project.

ESA also made other steps, which could potentially support the development of independent capability to launch and returns humans from orbit. As a separate budget item, ESA funded joint development with NASA of the International Berthing and Docking Mechanism, IBDM, which could be used onboard future European spacecraft. Also on May 20, 2009, ESA presented six new astronauts, who would be trained for missions to the International Space Station, and who could, conceivably, fly to the outpost onboard a yet-to-be-developed European vehicle.

According to ESA, the System Concept and Programmatic Review was completed with the final delivery of the revised data package in 2012. The ARV Phase-A final presentation was held in ESTEC on Sept. 6, 2012.


European capability in manned spacecraft development chronology:

1998 Oct. 12: The first launch of the original ARD capsule, during the third test launch of the Ariane-5 rocket. The ARD flew on a suborbital trajectory reaching maximum altitude of 830 kilometers and then splashed down in the Pacific Ocean, within five kilometers of the projected point.

2008 May 27: At the ILA-2008 air and space show in Berlin, Europe's chief aerospace company EADS Astrium unveiled a full-scale mockup of a three-seat vehicle, designed to enter the Earth orbit and possibly support lunar missions.

2008 June 4: ESA approved the development of the Experimental Reentry Test-bed, EXPERT, -- a cone-shaped capsule.

2008 Nov. 25-26: During a ministerial meeting in the Hague, Netherlands, member states of the European Space Agency, ESA, limited the development of the continent's manned spacecraft to a feasibility study.

2009 May 20: ESA presented six new astronauts chosen during a selection process from May 2008.

2009 July 7: ESA awarded a 21-million Euro Phase A contract for the ARV cargo spacecraft to EADS Astrium's division in Bremen, Germany. The work was expected to be completed before the next ministerial meeting of ESA in 2011.

2012 Sept. 6: The ARV Phase-A final presentation is held in ESTEC.

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Page author: Anatoly Zak; Last update: December 31, 2012

Page editor: Alain Chabot; Last edit: March 16, 2008

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An artist rendering of the European manned spacecraft considered within the Viking project. Click to enlarge. Credit: EADS Astrium

ATV followon

A follow-on version of the ATV spacecraft (right) is shown docked to the International Space Station, along with a European-built rescue vehicle (left). Click to enlarge. Credit: ESA


A mockup of the European ATV cargo ship. Copyright © 2005 Anatoly Zak

ATV rollout

The Ariane-5 rocket with the ATV spacecraft rolls out from its assembly building on its way to the launch pad in Kourou, French Guiana, on March 7, 2008. Click to enlarge. Copyright © 2008 Anatoly Zak

ATV presentation

ESA officials outline the ATV mission to European dignitaries and journalists on March 8, 2008 at the Jupiter building in Kourou, French Guiana. Left to right: John Ellwood, ATV Project Manager; Jean-Jacques Dordain, the ESA Director General; Jean-Yves Le Gall, Arianespace Director General; Yannick d'Escatha, CNES President. Click to enlarge. Copyright © 2008 Anatoly Zak

ILA 2008 ARD mockup

A full-scale mockup of the European manned spacecraft unveiled by the EADS Astrium at the ILA 2008 air and space show in Berlin. Click to enlarge. Copyright © 2008 Anatoly Zak

EADS concept

The spacecraft proposed by EADS would ride the Ariane-5 rocket into orbit. A quick-release system on the rocket's payload fairing would allow its use along with the emergency escape rocket for the capsule, European engineers believe. Click to enlarge. Copyright © 2008 Anatoly Zak


While it is sparsely populated with internal systems, the cockpit provides a "look and feel" for the future European manned spacecraft. Click to enlarge. Copyright © 2008 Anatoly Zak


The attitude control thrusters on the spacecraft. Click to enlarge. Copyright © 2008 Anatoly Zak

Orbit insertion

An artist rendering of the European manned spacecraft, separating from the core stage of the Ariane-5 rocket. Credit: EADS Astrium

ESA astronauts

Political and economic woes not withstanding, the 2009 crop of ESA astronauts had a chance to pilot the continent's first manned spacecraft sometime in 2020s. Click to enlarge. Copyright © 2009 Odi Busman


A 2009 revision of the proposal for the European manned spacecraft by EADS Astrium at the Paris air and space show in Le Bourget in June 2009. Click to enlarge. Copyright © 2009 Anatoly Zak

ARD interior

Interior of the European reentry vehicle proposed by EADS Astrium as it looked in June 2009. Click to enlarge. Copyright © 2009 Anatoly Zak

ARD model

A scale model of the ARD vehicle as of June 2009. Click to enlarge. Copyright © 2009 Anatoly Zak