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ATv Evolution illustration
ESA’s ATV could be transformed into a vehicle capable of carrying people to and from the ISS, if a proposal by EADS Astrium wins approval. (credit: EADS Astrium)

ATV Evolution: is Europe ready?

Europe has proposed manned space missions several times but projects like Hermes were never realized due to lack of the political will to override the technical as well as financial obstacles. On Tuesday, May 13, EADS Astrium again lobbied for the evolution of the successful Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) to a Crew Transport Vehicle (CTV) by way of a transitional return-ATV. These plans are not new: EADS Astrium Space Transportation undertook a feasibility study on the very subject in 2004–2005, funded by ESA’s General Study Program. In the ATV Evolution Study EADS Astrium argued for an unmanned return spacecraft called Payload Transport Vehicle to be ready by 2010 with an estimated cost of €191 million ($295 million) and a CTV ready by 2015 with a cost of €413 million ($638 million).

The time for the proposal seems well chosen. The recent internationally acclaimed success of the ATV “Jules Verne” certainly provides a good argument for its further development.

Three years later, EADS has reintroduced those plans and now there is additional support by the German Aerospace Center (DLR), which serves as the German government’s space agency. DLR’s Chairman of the Executive Board Prof. Johann-Dietrich Wörner is a convinced supporter of a manned spaceflight program by way of ATV Evolution and co-presented the EADS study on Tuesday with Evert Dudok, President of EADS Astrium Space Transportation. Accompanied by a changed schedule with PTV and CTV being ready by 2013 and 2017 respectively, the content is similar to that of the 2005 study. As to costs, Dudok is quoted by the German press to have given an estimate of under €1 billion ($1.5 billion). In his Spiegel online article, Christoph Seidler called this “very optimistic”.

The time for the proposal seems well chosen. The recent internationally acclaimed success of the ATV “Jules Verne” certainly provides a good argument for its further development. The mere fact that DLR’s chief co-presented this project to the press is proof of stronger political support, but governmental backing cited by Prof. Wörner is at least not official. The German federal government has recently issued an answer to a parliamentary question on its space strategy where it stated that the issue of manned spaceflight vehicles is still under deliberation. As the answer further rightly put it, a balance between costs and economic and scientific advantages is crucial.

What are the possible economic and scientific advantages of European manned spaceflight mission in general and the ATV Evolution model in particular? A point often stressed is access to the ISS and the possibility of return of crew and cargo to Earth. Considering the retirement of the Space Shuttle by 2010 and the debatable reliability and safety of the Soyuz capsules, the Europeans have little to argue against additional access to and return from the ISS. Even if the ISS project will not be pursued after 2015, there are arguments for ESA member states not to rely completely on robotic spaceflight. These include a prestige moment of being truly spacefaring nations as well as clear benefits to science, industry, and society. Robotic spaceflight might suffice for some but not for all experiments and exploration possibilities. There is the so-called “Apollo effect”, too: the inspirational impact of manned space missions on young people in order to foster interest in science education. The same is true for astronauts as the “faces” of spaceflight, as robots not likely to serve as idols for the general public. Additionally, under the ESA industry policy of geographical return, European industries benefit from new and ambitious projects. Lastly, considering that ESA already has a European Astronaut Corps and views its astronauts as ambassadors of spaceflight, a certain consensus on the European human spaceflight program already exists.

However, it remains a challenge to ensure European manned spaceflight missions beyond the dependency of Soyuz and the planned Orion. For examine, there is the case of the abandoned Hermes project. This project was started by the French space agency CNES in the eighties. It was envisaged to develop a space plane—Hermes—launched at the top of the Ariane rocket. Financial considerations made the French shift the project to the European level and ESA took over in 1987. First launch of the reusable spaceplane was planned for 1998. The design was changed several times, making Hermes heavier and more expensive. As the cost estimates changed from roughly $4 billion to over $7 billion during the development phase, ESA reduced the project to an unmanned technology demonstration (“Hermes X-2000”). The November 1992 meeting of the Ministerial Council decided not to continue funding Hermes and it was abandoned, having already cost the Europeans $2 billion. Clearly the Hermes failure has to be viewed in the then-given context of the rivalry with the Columbus project on budgets, new options of cooperation with Russia after the end of the Cold War and the growing pressure on ESA to reduce costs.

The option of cooperation between ESA and Roskosmos emerged at the early 1990s. A study was initiated on the Crew Space Transportation System, providing access to the ISS, Moon, and possibly beyond. The results of the initial study phase will be presented this autumn at the ESA Council of Ministers. As announced on Wednesday, May 14 by Roskosmos, a planned three-module, Soyuz-type vehicle could be ready for crew testing by 2018. ESA has not yet committed itself to this project and. according to an article by Dmitry Solovyov for Reuters. ESA is not likely to decide in favor of it at the November Ministerial Council meeting. There is more risk involved in a design of a new spacecraft compared to the development of an existing one. This is the main advantage of an evolutionary scheme for ATV in two steps because a failed new stage does not erase the gained development level, whereas half a spaceship is still nothing.

There is more risk involved in a design of a new spacecraft compared to the development of an existing one. This is the main advantage of an evolutionary scheme for ATV in two steps because a failed new stage does not erase the gained development level, whereas half a spaceship is still nothing.

The evolutionary design is the strongest argument for the public and decision makers alike. The strength of argument is based on the fact that public money has already been spent on the development of ATV. Because of its success it is now easier to put a development program forward that focuses on a reentry vehicle in shape of a Viking capsule. The public investment could be doubled. Having achieved this stage the evolution to CTV is at hand because if there is already a Viking capsule which brings cargo back to Earth, why not develop it further for manned reentries? This is also a good promotional strategy, because this sustainable design can gain more public support. During the different stages a lot of experience is gained for the next level so that it can be targeted immediately afterwards. Additionally, the decision on the second-stage development can be made separately from the decision on the manned version. This gives the more skeptical ESA member states an opportunity to “wait and see” how the reentry vehicle evolution turns out before tackling CTV.

That being said, the decision on the construction of an unmanned cargo reentry capsule has to be taken in the near future to serve the ISS. If the proposal really has the claimed governmental support, a decision during the November ESA Ministerial Council meeting in The Hague is possible. The member states have to decide on the organization’s next five-year budget scheme. But the ESA Council of Ministers on November 25–26 could venture further and make history by deciding to adopt the whole ATV Evolution plan, and thus undo the Hermes failure to provide Europe with independent access to manned spaceflight.


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