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In 1987, British aerospace and defence company BAE Systems proposed its Multirole Capsule Concept as an alternative to the Hermes mini-shuttle that was being developed alongside Ariane 5. The concept had an almost anti-Hermes design philosophy relying on proven technology and achievable objectives. The idea was to get European astronauts to space as quickly as possible with the technology and launch infrastructure at hand. The concept was ultimately rejected with ESA member states voting to go ahead with the development of Hermes. However, at a time when Europe is again looking to develop crew launch capabilities, I think it’s important to reexamine this concept and learn from it lest we repeat the mistakes of the past.
Amazingly, thanks to Luc van den Abeelen, author of the fantastic book Spaceplane Hermes: Europe's Dream of Independent Manned Spaceflight, I was able to track down the original study BAE conducted in 1987. The study began in April 1987 and the bulk of the work was completed in approximately six months.
The Multirole Capsule design measured four metres in diameter and stood at 8.3 metres tall with its single solar array deployed. The capsule would have had a mass of seven tonnes in orbit with a capacity for a crew of four under normal operations or six if it was utilized as a space station escape system. In its crew configuration, there was space for 250 to 500 kg of cargo within the cabin. An uncrewed version would have had a capacity of 1,500 kg. This uncrewed version could have also been utilized as a microgravity research platform. As a free-flying spacecraft, the Multirole Capsule would be capable of remaining in orbit for five days with a one-day contingency. However, it would also have been capable of remaining in orbit for up to two years when it was docked to a space station to be used in the event of an emergency.
The main structure of the capsule was split into a Service Module (SM) and a Descent Module (DM). The SM would have housed the solar array and various communication antennas and would have been discarded just prior to reentry. The DM was itself split into three sections. The forward cabin featured a docking port, control thrusters, and hygiene and galley facilities. The mid-cabin housed crew couches and control equipment. The batteries, propellant, air tanks, and payload bay were located in the rear cabin.
Much like the Apollo and Crew Dragon spacecraft, the Multirole Capulse would have been recovered after an ocean splashdown under parachutes. However, the spacecraft would have had a trick up its sleeve. It was designed with an offset centre of gravity that would allow the capsule to fly a semi-ballistic trajectory. This would lower the acceleration forces to approximately three times Earth's gravity and also permit a degree of control as to where the capsule landed. This meant that the recovery infrastructure could be reduced as the capsule could splash down within reach of recovery facilities.
In order to ensure crew safety during launch, the spacecraft would be fitted with a launch escape tower powered by solid rocket motors that would pull the capsule away from the launch vehicle in the case of an emergency. The technology had been proven aboard multiple US and Russian crewed launch systems and was, as a result, a known entity.
The launch vehicle
The Multirole Capsule was designed to make use of what was operational when it was proposed, which was the Ariane 4. This would allow for the earliest possible introduction of a European crewed launch capability (more on timelines later). However, it would have required a unique configuration to handle the task. The primary revisions would have been strengthening the vehicle equipment bay, and second and third stages, and the addition of monitoring and redundancy to crew-rate the vehicle.
The original 1987 study also proposed an upgraded version of the Multirole Capsule that could be launched aboard the Ariane 5 launch vehicle. This version would retain a standard DM with the addition of a larger SM that would allow for an external payload capability of around five tonnes, significantly larger than that of the proposed Hermes concept which had a payload capacity of around three tonnes, although this did differ somewhat from iteration to iteration as the design evolved. It would have also provided a significant payload capacity to polar orbit which would have been sufficient to conduct servicing missions to the Polar Platform, an ESA space station initiative that was in development when the Multirole capsule was proposed (I might use that for next month’s topic).
In addition to Ariane 4 and 5, the team behind the study also looked at utilizing the US Space Shuttle for delivery of the spacecraft to the proposed Space Station Freedom to be utilized as an escape capsule. This version of the vehicle would require a dedicated SM to allow integration with the Shuttle’s mounting system.
The timeline and costs
Assuming the commencement of feasibility studies in 1988, the proposed timeline had the first uncrewed test flight occurring in early 1993 with a pair of crewed test flights occurring in late 1993 and mid-way through 1994. This would have allowed the vehicle to be launched aboard Ariane 4 up until its final flight in 2003, giving ample time to upgrade the system for Ariane 5.
The original BEA study did not discuss cost. However, in February 1989 the Journal of British Interplanetary Society (JBIS) published an issue dedicated to the Multirole Capsule concept. Here, the authors utilize cost analysis at both the system and subsystem level to estimate a total development cost for the Multirole Capsule at 1.7 billion ESA Accounting Units with a per-unit cost of 75 MAU.
So, what is an ESA Accounting Unit (ECU)? In anticipation of the introduction of the Euro, ESA began to proactively place contracts in ECU rather than in the currency of each contractor. The unit of currency more or less, from what I can gather, tried to predict what a euro would have been worth. So, trying to ensure my lack of accounting and economics qualifications doesn't hinder me too much, it's more or less correct to infer euros where ECU is referenced. Then there's MAU which is a figure in million accounting units. I can only imagine the headache this caused the ESA accounting folk in the 80s and early 90s.
Since most of that probably means very little to you, it's fortunate that the JBIS authors also supplied the cost estimates of Hermes as a comparison. The report states that Hermes was expected to cost in the region of 5000 MAU (5 billion ECU) with a per-unit cost of 120 MAU.
An interesting side note about the cost to develop Hermes: Following the 1987 Ministerial meeting at The Hauge, ESA projected that the development of Hermes would cost 4429.4 MAU (4.4 billion ECU) which included two qualification flights. In a November 1991 edition of Nature, the cost to develop Hermes was by then estimated at $7.6 billion. This is in addition to the approximately $8 billion it cost to develop Ariane 5.
The per-unit cost comparison listed above is a little misleading as Hermes would have been reusable. As a result, in the long term, the recurring flight cost of the Multirole Capsule would actually be higher. The 75 MAU per-unit cost estimate above assumes a production run of 16 capsules, which would have been a significant commitment to the programme. However, the higher cost per unit of an initial small production run for qualification purposes could be offset with those higher production runs later in the vehicle's service. The addition of some reusability into the capsule design could have further reduced per-unit costs.
I think the key takeaway from the JBIS cost analysis is that had the Multirole capsule been selected instead of Hermes, ESA and the European taxpayer would have saved at a minimum of 3 billion ECU. This very well could have been the difference between a crewed launch programme being canceled, as it was with Hermes, and European fulfilling its dream of successfully developing a sovereign crewed launch capability.
The results of the study were first presented at the IAF conference in Brighton in October 1987, shortly before the ESA Ministerial Council meeting at The Hague. Although it received a largely positive reception, there was skepticism about some aspects of the concept.
According to a JBIS report, the criticism could largely be split into three main categories: the selection of the launch system, the selection of the sea-based recovery, and the extent of technology development.
Ariane 4 was considered inadequate for the job because it was designed as an uncrewed system and its ability to safely launch a crewed spacecraft was, as a result, in question. However, the JBIS report concluded that it is difficult to convey that there is a fundamental problem in the Ariane system that could not be addressed by alternative components or increased inspection and monitoring.
The sea-based recovery was questioned because of the infrastructure and assets that would be required. It was also felt that if it was used to evacuate injured crew from a space station, a sea-based recovery would lengthen the time it would take to get the crew member to a hospital and potentially exacerbate the injuries. Although the report did admit that the recovery method was an open question, it did add that cushioning rockets could be added to the design with little effect on its performance to allow for land-based recovery.
The final concern is the least convincing. It more or less stated that the Multirole Capsule would add any technical backing to a spaceplane project like Hermes or HOTOL. To which the report retorts, so what?! However, at the time when spaceplanes were what was considered to be the future of spaceflight, this criticism had more merit than it does today.
1987 ESA Ministerial Council meeting
Although there are a number of sources that claim the Multirole Capsule concept was discussed at the 1987 Ministerial meeting, barring access to minutes from that meeting it's hard to confirm how seriously it was discussed. Regardless, it was ultimately dismissed with member states opting to go ahead with the development of Hermes, a decision that arguably marked the beginning of the end of Europe's push to develop crewed launch capabilities.
UK representatives were less than impressed with the decision to go ahead with the development of Hermes. In an interesting look at the view of the UK Parliament at the time, I found a statement from The Right Honourable Kenneth Clarke who served as Minister of Trade and Industry at the time.
Three major new optional programmes were presented by ESA: Ariane 5, a new heavy-lift launcher capable of putting three satellites into orbit; Columbus, the European involvement in the international space station project; and, at French insistence, the Hermes manned spaceplane. I made clear at the outset that I could not endorse the grandiose ambitions of the Hermes programme to put man in space by the year 2000. At enormous expense, this would only achieve capabilities which the United States would have achieved 20 years previously.
The Right Honourable gentleman went on to share that following that 1987 Ministerial meeting only six of the 13 member states (ESA was a fair bit smaller at that time) had signed on to make a contribution to the first phase of Hermes development. This, however, appears to have grown to nine by February 1988. France, Germany, and Italy accounted for as much as 90% of the total funding committed with the UK, Sweden, Norway, and Ireland choosing not to contribute.
Support for the Multirole Capsule concept as an alternative to Hermes in the UK was, however, not exactly what I would call passionate. In a 12 November 1987 UK Parliament debate discussing, among other topics, the country’s decision not to fund Hermes, the capsule concept was not mentioned once. The single-stage-to-orbit HOTOL concept (the UK’s own spaceplane proposal) was, however, mentioned no fewer than 21 times. Clarke in fact states plainly that Hotol is a competitor to Hermes.
“If the European Space Agency is not a collaborator, there is no point in my throwing money down the drain into ESA on the Hermes project, which is a competitor. I have to continue the exploration for other international collaborators who might be interested in taking HOTOL further.”
So, to be clear, it's not as if the UK could see what the rest of Europe could not. The country was just pursuing its own pipe dreams.
The Multirole Capsule concept did, however, have an unlikely supporter in Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin. In a news clipping that purports to be from an October 1987 issue of Flight International magazine, Aldrin is claimed to have thought that the spacecraft would be a useful bargaining chip for ESA in its Space Station negotiations with NASA. By offering to provide a crew rescue vehicle and making some concessions to NASA's other demands, ESA could make progress towards the autonomy in space it seeks. I could not confirm the authenticity of this particular clipping as Flight Global has since rather disappointingly removed the online portal to its more than 100 years of aviation history documentation. I did, however, find an archived version of a 1987 volume of Spaceflight that confirms Aldrin’s backing of the concept.
Why I think it’s important to examine the Multirole Capsule concept as an alternative to Hermes is because it would appear that a similar scenario is brewing today as ESA again prepares to pursue crewed launch capabilities. ArianeGroup has proposed Susie which is the Hermes of the era. The concept is too heavy, will cost too much, and will doom any hope the continent has of finally launching European astronauts aboard a European launch vehicle. A Susie-type spacecraft design may very well be in Europe’s future, but we can’t skip steps.
The US started with Mercury and Russia with Vostok. The designs were simply focused on achieving a modest goal on the road to a more ambitious future. Europe needs a similar stepping stone for the 21st century. A vehicle that utilizes existing technology and know-how to quickly and affordably capitalize on public and political support before it wains. A vehicle that can service the International Space Station for its final years and begin to bring passengers from around the world to future commercial space stations. As we then look at the next European heavy-lift launch vehicle, we can begin to consider a more capable vehicle that could potentially take European astronauts to the Moon and beyond, built on the experience gained from this early vehicle.
So, will ESA and its Member States take the conservative route focused on iterative development or stay true to form and push for the impossible? Only time will tell.
I wonder, couldn't the Exploration Company's Nyx capsule be considered the BAE Multirole Capsule of today in this Hermes-SUSIE parallelism? Is there anything stopping ESA from funding/purchasing Nyx as a crew capsule, while Ariane develops SUSIE? Could Nyx be funded exclusively by private entities? This way ESA could risk funds on a more ambitious project like SUSIE with Nyx as a safer, more realistic backup plan.
Fascinating article. I fully agree with your conclusion, the European space industry has a penchant for being over-ambitious. Slow and steady wins the race, or at the very least, gets you to the finish line.
Unrelated, as one of those 16 paid subscribers, I don't get any particular satisfaction from having access to secret publications. Quite the opposite, I wish I could easily share this with my colleagues. So as far as I am concerned, that is an unnecessary limitation to your exposure.
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