Actually, it is rocket science

The Americans boldly go; the Russians took their revolution into orbit; the Chinese are taking a great leap forward. The Europeans have to hitch a lift. Europe, through ESA, might be an accepted member of the space community, but when it comes to manned spaceflight, it’s just one of a number of poor relations, waiting their turn for NASA to offer up a spare seat on a Space Shuttle.

But maybe not for much longer. Rumours are swirling that EADS Astrium is planning a project to convert ESA’s technologically advanced but distinctly unglamorous ‘Space Truck’, the Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV), into a capsule that will be able to carry European astronauts into space. Astrium presented part of its plans along with the German space agency, DLR, ahead of the Berlin Air Show later this month, when full details and a mock-up are expected.

Technologically, it makes sense. The ATV is already ‘crew-rated’ — once docked at the International Space Station, its interior is pressurised and the ISS crew can go into it in shirtsleeves to unload its contents. Some details are missing, in particular a proper crew compartment, which could replace the cargo bay, and heat shielding to allow the capsule to make re-entry. But Astrium and DLR believe these hurdles could be overcome within five years, with unmanned test flights in 2013.

The concept isn’t new, and in fact The Engineer reported last year on plans for Soyuz manufacturer Energia to link up with Astrium and Thales to design a Crew Space Transportation System, derived from the ATV, the Soyuz capsule and the ESA-developed Columbus space laboratory module, which docked with ISS in February. Nothing in the latest announcement contradicts our story, and this could be the most realistic way of pushing the project forwards.

While ESA pushes ahead in its drive to recruit astronauts, the announcement is timely — it must be much easier to convince someone to go through the months of arduous training if there is a decent chance of getting a flight at the end, and a scheduled programme of lift-offs in ESA’s own capsule would see to that. There are, of course, question marks of the value of human space flight at all. Certainly, the economics are against it, but not everything can be measured in monetary value.

Perhaps the greatest value of human space flight, in the short to medium term at least, is its ability to attract people into science, technology and engineering. The goal of putting people into space and keeping them healthy once there — not to mention the chance of being one of those people — is powerful, and much more concrete than the concept of developing and working on unmanned satellites, however exciting and valuable their functions and scientific findings. Whether the UK will get involved with this project is yet to be seen — after all, the British government has had little enthusiasm for manned space flight in the past — but the pull of the highest frontier could be irresistible.

Stuart Nathan

Special projects editor