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ESA prepares for the post-ISS era, selects The Exploration Company, Thales Alenia to develop cargo spacecraft

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

The two awardees, major 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 transport cargo to and from stations in low Earth orbit. This initial phase will run through 2026, with additional competitive contract opportunities expected to follow. The aim is to have at least one capsule conducting a demonstration flight to the International Space Station (ISS) in 2028 and to have a cargo transportation service online by the end of the decade. 

Right now, Europe relies on its international partners to carry cargo and crew to space “via a bartering system,” the space agency explained when it announced the LEO Cargo Return Service contracts last year. But the impending deorbit of the International Space Station and the rise of privately owned space stations means that Europe may be left without a meaningful way to barter, and instead would have to pay cash to access space instead. 

The LEO Cargo Return Service contract was established to hopefully invest that cash in European industrial capability instead. The cargo service could even become a stepping stone to a crewed transportation capability, in the same way that SpaceX’s Dragon capsule has a crewed and a cargo-only variant. 

“It prepares us for the post-ISS era, strengthening European industry’s competitiveness in low Earth orbit operations, as well as being a test case for the ESA transformation and working differently,” ESA Director of Human and Robotic Exploration Daniel Neuenschwander said in a statement. 

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

However, NASA ended up paying hundreds of millions of dollars to both competitors for the development of their respective capsules — SpaceX’s Cargo Dragon and what is 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 through the rest of the decade. 

The Exploration Company CEO Hélène Huby said its capsule, called Nyx, is being designed to service the International Space Station, the forthcoming private space stations and NASA’s orbital lunar platform Gateway. The French startup has raised around $65 million from venture capitalists for its vehicle design, and the maiden flight is on track for 2026, Huby confirmed in a recent interview. 

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

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