European Space Agency joins race to take the world to orbit

Agency hopes to compete with US and China in manned exploration

Europe has a spaceport in French Guiana but no rockets that could carry humans into space. AFP
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Europe should win friends in the world by offering them seats on space missions, the head of its space agency has said, as he called on policymakers to expand the continent's spacefaring capabilities.

Josef Aschbacher said his dream would be to have a European-led mission with African, Asian and South American astronauts on board.

The European Space Agency currently has no independent manned launch capability, with only the US, Russia and China able to send astronauts into space.

However, space officials are lobbying for Europe to scale up its ambitions as part of a wider push for geopolitical clout after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

A report recently handed to the ESA by a panel including a former Nato secretary general called for Europe to embrace “truly grand goals and narratives”, such as missions to the Moon.

Mr Aschbacher told a conference in Vienna that Europe should not merely “live with the crumbs” of a space industry tipped to be worth $1 trillion by 2040.

He urged policymakers to consider the benefits of spacecraft-based diplomacy at a time when Europe is eagerly trying to bring the Global South into the western fold.

“The dream would be that we build a European capability for humans … where a European astronaut is the commander of a capsule and has as his friends and colleagues a South American, an African, an Asian astronaut with him,” Mr Aschbacher said.

“The geopolitical dimension of this would of course be extremely important.”

The European Space Agency hopes to see its astronauts commanding missions in future. Getty

Mr Aschbacher warned of a brain drain from Europe if competitors have more attractive space programmes.

India hopes to become the fourth country to send humans into space in 2024.

“Today as you know this is only possible with three nations – Russia, I don’t think is an option today; China, a very difficult option; and the United States,” Mr Aschbacher said.

“I am very happy about the excellent co-operation we have with Nasa. But if you think 10 years from today, I think we have to consider where Europe wants to be.

“Do we want to be among those spacefaring nations or do we want to book a ticket somewhere?”

Europe also faces what has been called a “launcher crisis” after missions to the International Space Station on Russian spacecraft became untenable.

The ESA currently relies on Elon Musk’s SpaceX for launches and next-generation rockets have suffered delays and failures.

Despite this, it has ambitions to land the first European astronaut on the Moon before 2030, a decade which could also see the US return to the lunar surface via the Artemis programme.

“Thinking big only works if you have a great goal. Getting to the moon is such a goal,” said Austria’s EU Minister Karoline Edtstadler, who told the summit she still harboured childhood dreams of travelling to space.

“Our ambition has to be for Europe to be a leader and a superpower in space, not only for economic or scientific reasons but also for geopolitical reasons.”

Updated: June 02, 2023, 3:04 PM