The conflict between East and West has had a major impact on international space travel: In the 1960s, a fierce race for space developed, from the first man in space – the Russian Yuri Gagarin – to the moon landing, in which the Americans Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin hopping around on the moon. But in the 1970s, the mood thawed – and gradually brought the competing space powers together.
In the midst of this climate, the European Space Agency (ESA) was founded. Europe has always been dependent on other partners. In the beginning, it was often the US agency NASA, but since the 1990s, Russia has also been increasingly involved. Until Russia attacked Ukraine, the ESA website still read: “Russia is ESA’s primary partner in efforts to secure long-term access to space.” This position is now only found in a modified form.
Aschbacher: “Have made us dependent”
“We made ourselves dependent,” said Aschbacher during a conversation at the ESA office in Brussels. As an example, he cited the Russian Soyuz rocket, which “we launched from Kourou (in French Guiana, ed.)”, according to Aschbacher – but the launches have now been stopped. That would have a direct “impact” on European space travel, according to the ESA boss, because it would no longer be possible to launch a certain type of satellite into space.
ESA’s dependence on Russia
In an interview with ORF, ESA Director General Josef Aschbacher explains how Europe has become dependent on Russia for space travel.
This poses a logistical problem for the ESA – because without a launch vehicle, satellites and the like remain on the ground. The European Ariane 5 is not suitable for the previous uses of the Soyuz rocket. Ariane 6 is intended to remedy the situation, which under certain conditions “replaces what Soyuz has done up to now,” according to Aschbacher. But the development has been delayed for some time, the current plan at least provides for a first start in the coming year.
Also Mars mission stopped completely
But the dependency on Moscow goes far beyond satellites in orbit: the mission to the moon planned with the Russian agency Roskosmos was stopped – the ExoMars project was also stopped. The mission to “fly to Mars, land a robot and drill on the surface of Mars to look for signs of life” would actually have been a Russian-European flagship project.
First the work with Roskosmos was frozen, then stopped, so Aschbacher. In 2023, a European Mars rover with drills should have started on board a Russian landing system. “Unfortunately” the mission was developed together with Russia, according to Aschbacher. “This means that we have to find a solution here in order to be able to bring this rover and this drill to Mars,” says Aschbacher.
ISS as an exception
The situation at the International Space Station (ISS) is more difficult: there they continue to work together with Russia. It is “like a big building flying in space”, the western part is managed by NASA, the eastern part by Russia – it is a connected system that cannot be separated. A previously announced withdrawal of Russia from the ISS was later put into perspective – at least until the construction of Russia’s own space station in 2028 one could imagine continuing to use the ISS, it said at the end of October.
Reorientation towards the USA
Aschbacher answers why people relied so much on Russia in the first place by saying that “technology is needed that we don’t have in Europe”. Developing new things “would take a long time in Europe, which is why we have entered into cooperation with Russia,” says the ESA Director General. But NASA and China would also have the ability to land on Mars.
ESA cooperation with companies
According to ESA Director General Aschbacher, Elon Musk’s SpaceX is an example for Europe.
In particular, they want to cooperate more closely with the US agency. It is one of many proposals that will end up on the table at the ESA Ministerial Conference in Paris on Tuesday and Wednesday. This goes hand in hand with the approval of a three-year budget of 18 billion euros, a good quarter more than the last budget. Aschbacher points out that the increase corresponds roughly to the magnitude of NASA – and that does not include the military budget for US space travel. If you don’t invest, “we lose the brightest minds, the most talented people” who would then go abroad.
Musk’s SpaceX as a role model for Europe
About Elon Musk’s space company SpaceX – which is also a model for Europe, as Aschbacher says. He rates the increasing commercialization as “good, I think we need more of this commercial way of thinking in Europe,” says Aschbacher. At the same time, he points out that Musk has always been dependent on NASA’s help: “NASA has helped enormously, for example to finance the Falcon 9 rockets.”
However, it is not just about purely financial aid, the US agency also provided technological support. “And that’s exactly what I want to achieve in Europe too, that through ESA we create such companies that develop this “commercial market” with our help, our funds, technology development,” says Aschbacher.
In contrast to the Cold War, we are not at the beginning of space travel – and there is a completely different environment: “geopolitical, but also industrial and commercial”. According to the ESA boss, this is also having an effect on European space travel, Europe has one of the most competitive industries in the world – only this year five out of six orders went to Europe in a tender for geostationary satellites. Although the budget is “smaller” than the USA, it is “a lot better” when it comes to competitiveness.
New astronauts are introduced
More funding in view of the stopped cooperation with Russia and numerous projects that will be set up without cooperation with Moscow: the two-day ministerial meeting will probably bring some important decisions. At the end of the conference, it will be announced who will have the chance to fly into space in the future – then the participants in this year’s training class will be announced. Aschbacher did not want to say whether an Austrian would get the chance to fly into space. Austria’s only astronaut to date, Franz Viehböck, launched into space in October 1991 and carried out experiments as a European on the – Russian – space station Mir.