Friends in high places

As a new manned ‘space race’ gets underway, Europe chooses a partnership of equals with Russia over a junior role with NASA. George Coupe reports

The space race could be on again as the US, Europe, Russia, China, Japan, India and possibly even the UK plan to launch a new generation of astronauts into space.

On the 50th anniversary of Sputnik I’s first orbit of the Earth, Russia is set to take centre stage again. It seems increasingly likely that Europe will link with Russia, not the US, for its next big push into space, despite icier political relations between Moscow and the West.

The future of manned spaceflight and exploration looked in doubt several years ago, when the cost and risk to life seemed unacceptable and robots were the preferred option. But, just as the Earth is drawn inexorably closer to the Sun, so the desire to send humans back into space has gripped the world again.

The senior players have advanced plans to return to the Moon and eventually set foot on Mars. In the UK, a recent report commissioned by the British National Space Centre (BNSC) said the UK should discard its long-held policy of non-involvement in human space flight and even consider paying the Russians to take Britons into space.

Most proposals for new spacecraft and lunar bases floated so far have appeared under the banner of international co-operation, following the establishment of the Global Exploration Strategy. International co-operation is and will remain vital to the future of space exploration, especially in putting together manned missions, because the funding problems have not gone away.

But behind the show of co-operation, the space community is also speaking the language of the race. UK scientists once committed to robotic exploration said last month that the UK should ‘catch up’ with human spaceflight, and not get ‘left behind’. They asked: ‘Do we want to lead or are we just going to follow?’

So what has caused this change? One of the catalysts is, paradoxically, the International Space Station (ISS), itself the embodiment of international space co-operation.

The construction, servicing, supply and crewing of the station has been a shared responsibility, not to say a burden, for its partners. As the Shuttle fleet nears retirement in 2010 and the Soyuz gets in ever greater need of further upgrade, NASA, ESA and the Russian federal space centre Roskosmoshave had to address the question of how to keep supplying the ISS and, crucially, transport crew to and from the station.

This presented the opportunity to consider building extra capabilities to any future spacecraft. Almost overnight, as the US announced Orion, which will be capable of transferring crew to the ISS and supporting manned Moon and Mars missions, Europe and Russia started talks on a possible rival system, now designated the Crew Space Transportation System, CSTS.

The CSTS represents a new kind of partnership between Europe and Russia in space technology. It will be a jointly built, owned and potentially jointly operated human spaceflight system.

The project has already broken new ground: the potential industrial partners for both sides met in Moscow for the first time last month and are now finalising the selection criteria for the new spaceship. The partners include EADS Astrium, Thales Alenia Space and the Russian Soyuz manufacturer RKK Energia.

Jeremy Close, a spokesman for EADS Astrium, spoke to The Engineer after the meeting. ‘These are part of ongoing discussions about mission requirements, including architectural options,’ he said. ‘We are looking to have the selection criteria finalised in the next month or so. A two-step approach for CSTS would look at modifying and adapting the current Soyuz spacecraft and then look at new developments.’

He said the company could not give more specific details on the possible technologies but said its contribution to ESA’s new cargo vessel for the ISS, the Automated Transfer Vehicle, which is due to make its first flight next year, would be of benefit to the project.

The ESA/Roskosmos partnership, if successful, will represent a new co-operation in space, but it is also expedient for both sides.

Jean-Jacques Dordain, ESA director general, recently described Europe’s reliance on the US to get into space in the future as a problem of ‘single-point failure’. While it would make obvious practical sense to have an alternative means of reaching the ISS, this was also a diplomatic way of saying that Europe wanted its independence.

And with Russia, Europe would be an equal partner in the CSTS, as Manuel Valls, who is in charge of ESA’s role in the project, told The Engineer. He said Europe ‘would not be a junior partner’, and would no longer have to go cap in hand for seats on a US crew transport.

 


Language of race: Russia’s abandoned Klipper, above left; ESA’s Columbus lab, above right

So is Europe and the rest of the world back in a space race? ‘Yes,’ said Valls, after some hesitation.

He is head of policy and plans in ESA’s directorate of human space flight, microgravity and exploration. The various space powers are now looking beyond the ISS, he said, and moving forward in parallel, all driven by the same basic human desire for knowledge and experience: ‘The momentum is growing behind the human space flight effort. The time has come when we really have to move forward and not just stay in low Earth orbit.’

The CSTS story began in 2004, when the Russians invited ESA to take part in the development of a new crew system to replace Soyuz. Russia had been working on plans for a re-usable spacecraft designated the Klipper, but this had been rendered unaffordable after a dramatic cut to its budget. It went looking for support for the project from ESA, but the proposal was rejected by the agency’s member states in 2005.

However, the discussions continued and a new concept emerged in 2006 based on a combination of existing expertise, funds and hardware. Loosely, the vision was for a modular craft based on a crew-carrying version of the Automated Transfer Vehicle plus an upgraded version of the Soyuz re-entry vehicle and possibly a jointly developed propulsion module.

Before he was recently ousted from his post Nikolai Sevastyanov, the former head of RKK Energia, said Europe would build the habitation or orbital module while Energia built the descent vehicle and together the two sides would design the propulsion system.

Valls, describing the progress of the project to date, said: ‘In 2006 we started initial analysis and studies and a year ago we got support from our member states to enter discussions with the Russian space agency. More recently, in February/March of this year, we put together a team from industry for ESA, and Roskosmos similarly appointed RKK Energia.’

ESA and Roskosmos have established a set of ‘high-level guidelines’ as a basis for the partnership. These set out the framework for the co-operation, what type of system should be considered and what its mission should be. So far the extent of the mission is to reach low Earth orbit, serve the ISS and finally reach lunar orbit only. There is as yet no target to develop a system that will land on the Moon.

However, ESA’s long-term goals see landing on the Moon as merely the ‘first step’ for the CSTS. The guidelines for the potential system are specific. Valls said any solution should be based on experience derived from the development of previous systems.

The work of thrashing out a design began in earnest on 3 September with ESA, Roskosmos and their respective industries all meeting in Moscow.

‘That is basically the initial step,’ said Valls. ‘In a month, industry will come to us with the outcome of their analysis and present us with whatever ideas they might have for the architecture of the vehicle.’ Roskosmos and ESA will then decide which one to go for and detailed development will begin.

Valls would not pre-judge the outcome of the initial stage. However, he said given the requirement to use existing knowledge and experience of both sides, Soyuz, the Columbus laboratory module developed by ESA and destined for the ISS, and the ATV would be the precursors of the CSTS.

He added that the most obvious solution is a capsule-sized re-entry vehicle rather than something new, such as a winged spaceplane. ‘It will be based on architectures of a vehicle that include or are built around a capsule for re-entry.’

After that, he said, there are many possibilities for the design and configuration of the habitation and service modules and how they are integrated with the capsule.

‘These are the questions that we are defining. But we have not discarded the possibility that they may come up with a new and brilliant idea that we have not thought of at this stage.’

On the question of basing the CSTS around an ‘upgraded’ Soyuz, Valls said while Soyuz will certainly require further upgrades to continue serving the ISS, the Russians would have to create a new vehicle for the CSTS. ‘The two would be different things,’ he said.

A project as significant and complex as CSTS will require an unprecedented level of co-operation between the two sides, but Valls is confident the relationship will work.

‘We get along with the Russians extremely well. We have really made a major step forward. We now have to agree on the vehicle we want to develop, and agree on the workshare and all of that will be a joint effort to come up with the best possible solution. It will be a jointly owned vehicle, a jointly or separately operated vehicle, but we will not be junior partner.’

The preferred architecture for the CSTS is expected to be put to the European summit of space ministers scheduled for next autumn, at which a decision will be made on whether to go ahead.

So far ESA has released €18m (£13m) for the study but, if the project gets the green light, many more millions in funding will be required. The CSTS will be contending with other requests for cash at that summit, such as more ATV units and additions to the ESA’s ExoMars programme.

So, given last month’s BNSC recommendation, does the CSTS represent the ideal opportunity for the UK to join the international human spaceflight effort?

Dr Ian Gibson of the BNSC, who helped draft the report, said the matter was not yet decided. However, he said there would have to be a process of transition in which the Uk would develop its capability to contribute to such projects, while continuing to serve the international space exploration effort through its current expertise in robotic missions.

He stressed the UK was not joining a ‘space race’ — this country’s future efforts would be of an entirely collaborative nature, he said.

Technologically and politically, the most significant milestone on the road to the CSTS is the ATV. The docking system on the 20-tonne vessel developed by ESA, as well as other components, are Russian made. In addition, because the vessel is intended to rendezvous and connect automatically to the manned ISS, it must satisfy the same human space-flight requirements as any future crew vehicle.

On docking with the ISS, the ATV will remain there as a pressurised, integral part of the station. Astronauts will be able to enter the module in regular clothing to empty it of its cargo and refill it with station waste. After about six months it will then disengage and head back to Earth, to burn up on re-entry.

The first ATV, named Jules Verne, has been delivered to ESA’s launch site in French Guiana where it is being prepared for blast-off early next year. After separating from its Ariane 5 launcher, an onboard navigation system will guide it towards the ISS. The module has four main engines plus 28 smaller thrusters for altitude control.

After about three days of orbit adjustments, the ATV will come in sight of the ISS and start its approach from about 19 miles (30km) behind and five km below the ISS. The final approach takes place during the next two orbits, with the ATV closing with the ISS at walking pace.

While Europe and Russia must wait, the other competitors in the new space race have been making good progress.

At the end of August Boeing was selected to provide manufacturing support for design and construction of the upper stage of the two-stage Ares I rocket that will carry Orion, Nasa’s new crew exploration vehicle into low Earth orbit.

Nasa expects the Orion crew exploration vehicle to make its first flight to the ISS in 2014 followed by a trip to the Moon by 2020, and hopes ultimately that it will be at the heart of future missions to Mars.

Lockheed Martin was awarded the contract to build Orion in August 2006. It will be designed to rendezvous with a separately launched lunar landing module and an Earth departure stage in low Earth orbit, and it will form the Earth re-entry vehicle for lunar and Mars returns.

With the Apollo heat-shield the best understood technology for re-entry, Orion will be similar in shape to the Apollo spacecraft, but significantly larger, at five metres in diameter, and with two-and-a-half times the internal volume of the Apollo capsule.

The advanced plans and appointments show the US is clearly once again in the lead. And barring a calamity, there is little doubt that it will be an American who once again steps down off the ladder.

Perhaps the prospect of the red planet covered in the Stars and Stripes will spur the newly emboldened Russians and their potential European partners to do their best to make sure they are not far behind.

But with Asian nations beginning to concentrate their mighty will and resources on space exploration, there is even a risk that Europe and the Russians could come in third.

Japan recently launched a lunar orbiter and is working on plans for 50m-high solar towers to power a permanent base on the Moon.

Meanwhile, China is also planning to launch a lunar satellite to map its surface. This is the first step in a three-phase programme to land on the Moon and return lunar samples. The Moon Rover would be launched in 2012.

China has said categorically that it is not involved in a space race, that its missions will proceed at its own pace and continue irrespective of what other nations are doing.

However, ultimately its programme is aimed at putting more Chinese into space and exploring deep space. And if you are on the same track as everybody else with the same goals, and the starting pistol goes, it doesn’t matter what you say — you’re in the race.