Europe is preparing to reorient its projects and to usher in a new era in the competitive world of astronautics. It is not a matter of today for tomorrow, but to be among the protagonists of the coming decades, we must start now, slowly but surely.
The starting pistol has just been fired by the Director General of the European Space Agency (ESA), the Austrian Josef Aschbacher, who has proposed to the 22 countries that make up the organisation - among them Spain and the United Kingdom - the benefits of having full autonomy to place European astronauts in space.
Aschbacher believes it is urgent not to remain subordinate to Russia and the United States, as has been the case to date, for access to space. "We are dependent on others, not for lack of knowledge or technology, but for lack of money," summarises Aschbacher.
The European awakening has been triggered by India, which "will soon be taking its astronauts to orbit around the Earth", ESA's chief executive recalled on 18 January.
The Delhi government has invested more than 1.5 billion dollars in developing a national rocket (GSLV Mark III), capable of carrying a manned capsule (Gaganyaan), which will make the Asian country the fourth world power to be able to place human beings beyond the Earth.
Russia and the United States have been the veterans of manned spaceflight since 1961, joined by China in 2003. Between Washington, Moscow and Beijing, they dominate the access of men and women to space, a scenario that "has become the next economic zone, which is the moon and beyond", recalls Josef Aschbacher, "and Europe does not have the capacity", he says.
Overtaken by India, Aschbacher wants ESA to be the world's fifth space player. With a budget for 2022 of 7.152 billion euros, he believes that now is the time to get to work so that, starting in the next decade, the European effort to explore outer space is transferred from robotic projects with probes, satellites and telescopes to manned missions.
"Europe has no capability of its own for manned flights in low orbit - less than 2,000 kilometres from Earth - let alone for exploration missions beyond the Moon. That is the reality," warns Aschbacher. True, but quite a few ESA countries prefer to fly into space with NASA and Roscosmos capsules, and why not with the Chinese Space Agency (CNSA).
As head of ESA since March 2021, the Agency's chief executive knows that in order to have his own rockets capable of carrying astronauts, he must convince European leaders. He is convinced that this is an "inspiring" project and will strive to make it a reality in the shortest possible time.
To get the approval of the 22 ESA countries, Aschbacher is counting on the French government, whose president, Emmanuel Macron, will make a proclamation to that effect at the closing of a meeting between ESA and EU ministers scheduled for mid-February in Toulouse.
But the decisive meeting will be at the end of November in Paris, where ESA's space ministers will have to give the go-ahead for the 2023-2025 programmes and budgets that will shape the Agency's long-term future.
The most ambitious of all the new optional initiatives Josef Aschbacher plans to put on the ministerial table will be to approve, reject or put on hold the decision to start work on defining a multi-billion dollar programme to develop a launch vector capable of carrying astronauts, as well as the infrastructure needed for take-off.
Not all countries agree to embark on an escalation of investment in order to have a manned space transport system in place between 2030 and 2040. A somewhat cheaper alternative would be to build new facilities at the Kourou space base, use a version of the US Orion capsule and a variant of the new Ariane 6, whose static tests in French Guiana are due to be completed in the last quarter of the year, but the costs remain astronomical.
But Aschbacher's ambitious plans for ESA go beyond manned flights. Following the agreement reached by ESA ministers at their meeting in Portugal last November, he also wants to launch three concepts he calls "accelerators", in which space plays a major role in addressing the social, economic and security challenges facing European citizens.
The new framework described by the Agency's chief aims to develop governance procedures to regulate the growing traffic beyond the atmosphere, prevent the generation of space debris and have financial instruments in place to "make space technology contribute to a green future". Aschbacher believes that ESA's innovative projects must "respond quickly and resiliently to crisis situations and protect assets deployed in space". The concrete plans will be translated into projects to be unveiled later this year in Paris.