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Europe Eyes Future in Commercial Space

The ISS has remained a crucial component of ESA’s human spaceflight landscape, but commercial enterprise is changing the ecosystem of independent access.
Credit: NASA/ESA

Throughout the history of human spaceflight, the European Space Agency and Europe as a whole has remained at the whim of larger, more capable nations such as the United States, Russia and China to facilitate access to key elements of space research. This has been the case through the early days of transatlantic cooperation, and remains the status quo with both the International Space Station and the Artemis Program. This arrangement was a preferable alternative to a world in which Europe stood on its own, staring down the barrel of cost overruns and complex intra-continental geopolitics. However, a paradigm shift remains on the horizon. With the advent of commercial space, the landscape of access is changing. Throughout the tremendous rise of the commercial space ecosystem, Europe has been eyeing numerous partners in the private sector to facilitate access for the continent in a new and changing world – one that could rewrite the narrative for future space exploration.  

Throughout the ISS program, ESA has remained a crucial partner in the laboratory’s development, resupply and upkeep. Several of the modules on station, including the Columbus laboratory, Tranquility and Harmony nodes, and Leonardo multipurpose module, were manufactured by European consortiums – albeit launched by the American Space Shuttle. With the end of the ISS program on the horizon, the continent has looked at numerous avenues for ensuring not only a continued human space flight program, but an independent one. Notably, ESA has pivoted hard towards both domestic and international commercial entities for assured access to space, which have resulted in numerous avenues that the continent could pursue. 

Ax-3, carrying an all European crew, lifts off from LC-39A – headed for the International Space Station.
Credit: Brandon Berkoff

Axiom Space represents one of these new paths forward for Europe’s broader space ambitions, decoupling ESA from US or Russian-led human spaceflight projects in favor of commercial enterprise. By acting as a broker to purchase seats on SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft, Axiom can provide access to space for nations that may not have independent access. Such was the case on Ax-2, in which two Saudi astronauts flew for the Saudi Space Commission, and Ax-3, which saw Swedish project astronaut Marcus Wandt fly for ESA. These types of shorter duration commercial missions may also enable further cooperation across new and developing partner nations, including nations such as the United Arab Emirates and even India as intergovernmental agreements are built. Flights such as these can act as a good litmus test for international cooperation, and development of multilateral relationships.  

Beyond the ISS, Europe has been looking to expand partnerships to potentially ensure independent operations, outside of the whims of NASA or Roscosmos for the first time in the agency’s history. ESA is no stranger to reaching into the commercial sector directly, having utilized SpaceX launch vehicles to launch numerous flagship missions during periods of launcher unavailability. However, bold new strides are being made into the realm of human spaceflight for the continent. ESA and American private station company Vast signed a memorandum of understanding on June 6 during the ILA Berlin air show, agreeing to study collaboration on the commercial space stations that Vast plans to develop – starting with the Haven-1 station the company plans to launch in the second half of next year. According to the statement, ESA and Vast will study potential use of Vast stations by ESA and its member states. They will also look for roles in which European industry could provide components for Vast’s stations, as well as use of future European crew and cargo spacecraft. “Today ESA has further proven its determination to play a crucial role into the further development of the LEO economy in space for Europe and European citizens,” Josef Aschbacher, director general of ESA, said in a statement. “Our teams are looking forward to working closely with Vast teams to ensure European interests and our collective role in space exploration.” In November of 2023, ​​The European Space Agency signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Airbus Defence and Space and Voyager Space to explore the potential of European utilization of the Starlab Space Station once the ISS is deorbited at the end of its usable lifespan. Utilization of the joint American-Japanese-European station, as well as Vast’s future stations, would represent a significant stride towards independence for the continent.

Voyager Space’s Starlab space station has outlined agreements for both European Crew and Cargo.
Credit: Voyager

Alongside access to stations, Europe has begun to lean on their domestic capabilities to ensure routine cargo access to not only the ISS, but to further commercial destinations in the future. The Exploration Company is developing its reusable Nyx spacecraft, a cargo capsule which will initially ferry supplies to and from low Earth orbit. The company also plans to offer versions of the spacecraft for crewed spaceflight in low Earth orbit and missions to the surface of the Moon, should initial cargo runs be successful. The Exploration Company, alongside Thales Alenia Space, were awarded an initial €25 million European Space Agency (ESA) contract in May 2024 to perform a demonstration mission to and from the ISS as part of the agency’s LEO Cargo Return Services initiative, an initiative akin to NASA’s early Commercial Cargo program. This capability represents a huge leap forward for Europe, which lost the ability to domestically deliver cargo with the retirement of the Automated Transfer Vehicle, which flew 5 flights to the ISS. The Exploration Company has penned agreements with 3 additional commercial stations, Vast, Axiom and Voyager Space for resupply, cementing Europe as a power player in the commercial cargo landscape. 

The Nyx cargo vehicle may offer Europe a chance to make it big in the crew and cargo spaces, should vital demonstration missions go well.
Credit: The Exploration Company

The commercial era has presented nations across the globe with the chance to access space like never before, and Europe is making strides towards generating and sustaining its own space economy. As was the case for the United States, developmental work through cargo access became a gateway for independent crew capability, something Europe has long dreamed of. It is the hope of many nations across the European Space Agency that one day, hopefully in the not-too-distant future, European astronauts will set out on their own path – free from the constraints of a primary geopolitical power. The first steps on that road seem to be underway now, and time will tell where Europe ends up.

Edited by Beverly Casillas

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