Is ESA getting screwed on Artemis deal?

Is ESA getting screwed on Artemis deal?

Issue 46. Subscribers 1,571.

This topic has been one that I have been ruminating on for several months. While I respect NASA, I think Europe too often gets caught on the wrong side of a bad deal. Artemis has, for possibly the first time in history, given Europe a good hand with which to negotiate. This issue will likely ruffle some feathers, but I think it's important to ensure that I am not the only one that feels this way.

To my 34 new subscribers, enjoy your first issue and, as always, if you have any comments, suggestions, or tips, please reply to this email.

Not yet subscribed?

The United States cannot return to the Moon without Europe. The European Service Module (ESM) is an integral element of Orion providing propulsion, power, and thermal control, in addition to consumables like water. Without this key piece of the puzzle, NASA would have to go back to the drawing board, delaying its efforts and risking the programme losing the support it enjoys in the halls of Washington DC.

When I first heard that NASA would be allowing ESA astronauts to fly aboard Artemis missions to the Gateway space station and possibly even to the surface of the Moon in return for supplying ESMs, I was excited. I may have even felt a sense of gratitude for the agency’s allowances for European astronauts. However, I have since started to ask questions about that deal. If Europe is playing such a pivotal role in the United States' push to return humans to the surface of the Moon, why do we have to beg and negotiate for a place aboard a surface mission? Why is a European astronaut not guaranteed a spot aboard the first crewed spacecraft to touch down on the lunar surface since Apollo 17?

The background

ESA had been using its Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) cargo spacecraft as a means to reimburse NASA for Europe's eight percent share of the International Space Station (ISS) common operating charges. The deal ensured Europe's dues were paid up until 2017.

At the 2012 ESA Ministerial council meeting in Naples, Italy, Member States agreed to build the service module for NASA's Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle as a means to cover its share of the ISS common operating charges following the ATV’s retirement. The proposal dates back to at least May 2011 with the use of an ATV-derived service module for Orion being driven, according to this SpaceNews article, by Europe. The decision was not initially unanimous with France opposing the proposal to fund the development of the ESM.

This initial agreement, which was officially announced in early 2013, was for one service module for the maiden uncrewed test mission, which was launched in November 2022, and elements of a second service module. This would see ESA's obligation to the ISS covered from 2017 to 2020. At the time, ESA owed NASA around €455 million to cover ISS obligations over that period, which equate to approximately €150 million per year.

The contracts

On 17 November 2014, ESA signed a €390-million firm-fixed-price contract with Airbus to design and build one service module and to build parts for a second, which NASA could use to build itself the second module if ESA member states declined to continue funding the initiative. This was followed by a €200 million contract in February 2017 to complete the second ESM and a €250 million contract for a third module in May 2020. In February 2021, ESA signed the largest and most recent ESM contract tapping Airbus to build an additional three modules at a cost of €650 million. That’s €1.49 billion in total.

Interestingly, there are at least two versions, one in English and one in French, of an ESA press release announcing this most recent contract in 2021. The French version when translated (I used Google Translate) states that the first two ESMs of the latest contract as well as Europe’s contribution to the Gateway space station secured spots for three European astronauts aboard Artemis missions. In the English version, however, it states that the first two of the three modules in the latest contract are the European contribution to Gateway. Either way, if we’re calculating the total contracted European contribution to returning humans to the surface of the Moon, Gateway contracts should, of course, also be considered.

Europe is supplying two modules for the Gateway space station. The contracts for both have been awarded to Thales Alenia Space. The first was awarded in October 2020 and was for the I-HAB habitation module at a value of €327 million. The second was for €296.5 million and was awarded in January 2021. This second contract is interesting as it's for a Gateway module called ESPRIT. The module consists of two main elements. The first is a system to provide data, voice, and video communications from Gateway to the Moon. The second is a refueling module that will provide the station with propellants to ensure it has fuel to maintain its orbit as well as provide fuel for future reusable lunar landers and further deep space transport. To say this module is mission-critical would be an understatement.

Together, European contracted contributions to Gateway and Orion total just over €2.1 billion. This far outstrips any required contributions to the ISS common operating charges, which appears to be the case if that French ESA press release is accurate.

Note: The €2.1 billion figure includes ESA contributions to the ISS up until 2024. The Biden administration only approved the extension of operations for the station up until 2030 in August 2022. ESA Member States then agreed to continue funding the station up until the new deadline in November 2022 at the Ministerial Council meeting in Paris. It’s not yet clear what type of in-kind contribution ESA will utilize to fund the additional six years but more ESMs would not be surprising.

There are also potential Argonaut missions and a sample return mission that could have been included here. However, I think the contracts above are the most directly attributable to the viability of the Artemis programme. That is to say that without these contracts, NASA would have to completely rework the programme.

So, Europe is making significant financial and technological contributions to returning US astronauts to the Moon, but what are we getting out of it? To date, it has been confirmed that two of the three spots currently committed to ESA will be aboard Artemis 4 and Artemis 5. These flights coincide with the delivery of I-HAB and ESPRIT to the Gateway space station. These missions will not include surface time for European astronauts. Speaking at the 15th European Space Conference earlier this year, ESA Director General Josef Aschbacher explained that the nature of the third spot is still being negotiated but that he was pushing for it to be on a mission to the lunar surface.

I keep insisting [to NASA Administrator Bill Nelson] that European boots should be seen on the Moon soon. However, he admitted that there was not yet an agreed-upon time slot or flight.

Benefits of ESM to NASA

The equation is clearly not as simple as Europe has paid €2.1 billion and has been nonetheless unable to secure a spot aboard a lunar surface mission. The arrangement is a complicated web of agreements that extend far beyond the Artemis programme and are frustratingly difficult to uncover. However, there are also less obvious benefits that Europe’s development of the ESM has brought to the table.

I think it’s fair to say that Orion’s ballooning costs and nightmarish development timeline have been political headaches for NASA and its Artemis programme. Before the almost universal praise that the agency received for the successful completion of Artemis 1, the programme had its fair share of detractors both in newsrooms and in the halls of Washington DC. Although some of that criticism has surely dissipated, the long wait until the first crewed flight will likely again reignite that fire of criticism. And this is all without the burden of developing the spacecraft’s service module.

One of the key benefits to NASA in Europe developing the service module for Orion is, as a result, the cost. You could probably add a reduction in the time it would have taken to develop the Orion system, but I think that’s secondary to cost. Why I think this is not because Europe took on the financial burden of development of the service module, which is of course also significant, but that NASA was able to take it off its own books. I know this sounds like an irrelevant distinction, but it’s not. It has allowed NASA to downplay the true cost of Orion. This, in turn, has translated into political and public support that may have otherwise not been sufficient to see the programme through to a maiden flight. I do not think this can be taken lightly when calculating the true value Europe has brought to the Artemis programme.


ESA is at an interesting and somewhat unstable point in its history, especially when it comes to spaceflight. The agency is completing work on the heavily delayed Ariane 6, trying to get Vega C back to operational flight, dealing with the loss of Soyuz, and attempting to launch the development of its own crewed launch capability. Artemis, as a result, likely appears to ESA leadership as a safe bet in a raging sea of doubt. However, I think it should also be viewed as an incredible bargaining chip that we would be foolish to squander.

I don’t know if returning humans to the surface of the Moon is the best use of funding either for NASA or ESA. I think it likely could be far better spent on robotic missions to deep space to unlock the secrets of the icy moons of Jupiter or the least explored planet in our solar system, Mercury. However, I do see the incredible opportunity for political and public support that would be enjoyed by seeing a European astronaut set foot on the surface of the Moon. As a result, I think ESA should be taking a far stronger stance in its negotiations for achieving that goal.

Going back to my first sentence: the United States cannot return to the Moon without Europe. That should be a position taken in every negotiation the ESA DG has with his counterpart at NASA. ESA is not a contractor or a subordinate. The agency is a vital cog in the Artemis machine. I think that the possibility of ESA pulling out of missions past the first three should be used as a bargaining chip to secure European boots on the ground at the earliest possible opportunity. We will, of course, honour our commitment to the ISS and Gateway, but we reserve the right to not be involved in programmes that do not benefit Europe and her citizens. €2.1 billion may not be quite enough to completely develop a sovereign crewed launch capability, but it would most certainly be a good start. And launching European astronauts aboard European rockets from European soil, might just make up for not seeing our astronauts set foot on the surface of the Moon.

She’s all legs! - Swiss aerospace structures and mechanisms, and thermo-optical hardware specialists Almatech SA have delivered the first landing leg for the Themis reusable booster demonstrator to ArianeGroup. The leg will be integrated with the booster in Vernon ahead of a first hop test from Kiruna in Sweden. Themis is a demonstrator programme for the first reusable European heavy-lift launch vehicle. The technology may also be applied to Ariane 6 to equip the launcher with reusable liquid fuel boosters.

A fiery record - The head of cryogenic propulsion systems at Avio Mikhail Rudnykh shared that the first development engine of the company's M10 methalox engine completed 23 engine ignitions with a total accumulated firing time of 1,300 seconds. The testing included two 200-second tests. Rudnykh also revealed that Avio is currently working towards testing the second development model of the engine. The M10 engine is expected to power the upper stage of the company's Vega E launch vehicle.

There are no bad ideas - ESA published a call for ideas for its Earth Explorer 12 mission under its FutureEO research and development program. The call asks the scientific community to submit innovative and disruptive concepts for future ESA Earth observation missions. The agency's Call for Ideas mechanism is the first step in developing a new flagship European satellite mission. The deadline to submit a Letter of Intent is 28 April 2023 and the deadline to then submit a full proposal is 29 September 2023.

Tinfoil hats for the magnetic rays - ESA announced that its Euclid spacecraft successfully underwent electromagnetic compatibility testing ahead of its launch this year. The testing was completed at the mission prime Thales Alenia Space’s test facilities in Cannes, France. Euclid is a visible to near-infrared space telescope that will be used to better understand dark energy and dark matter by accurately measuring the acceleration of the universe. The spacecraft will be launched aboard a Falcon 9 from Cape Canaveral in July 2023.

It's all about the Benjamin - Scottish smallsat component and solutions provider AAC Clyde shared its year-end financial report for 2022. The company saw total net sales of €17.8 million for 2022, an increase of 9% year-on-year but short of its €19 million target. It also has a current order backlog of €38.67 million which CEO Luis Gomes says gives the company “confidence going into 2023.”

Where do you come from where do you go - German space-based data network startup Rivada Space Networks has signed an agreement with US-based satellite builder Terran Orbital to manufacture 300 satellites for the company's network in the sky. Rivada is a wholly owned subsidiary of U.S.-based Rivada Networks. So, this is a US-based company setting up shop in Europe and then contracting out of Europe for the construction of its constellation. I'm really not sure what to make of it all.

Phenomenal cosmic power, itty bitty signal strength - ESA announced that one of Europe's Galileo satellites had been reconfigured to emit a new signal component optimized to serve low-end receiver devices for Internet of Things applications. According to the agency, the test was an effort to serve this emerging market by creating a position signal that can be acquired by devices with lower computational complexity.

Did they not watch Terminator? - French aerospace and defence giant Thales has partnered with LuxCarta to offer AI-enhanced solutions for intelligence and military cartography. The technology is able to automatically detect, interpret and digitize buildings, road networks, obstacles, vehicles, and more. The agreement reinforces the relationship between the two companies, which has been ongoing since 2020.

Not yet a subscriber?

Good that you are doing a deep-dive into this. I too have questions. (Not sure I agree with all your conclusions)

0) While indeed disappointing that there may be no ESA astronauts on the first lander mission, this was to be expected since it was originally intended as ISS payments, not Artemis buy-in.

Threatening to dropping out now or blackmailing NASA seems like a short-term strategy.

After already dropping the Russians for Exomars, and even missing AIM for NASA's DART, can ESA afford to be seen as unreliable to foreign partners? Especially as it now needs NASA help to get Exomars landing, and wants to participate in returning the Mars sample before having proven itself.

(Without significantly more money, ESA can go at it alone. )

1) To what degree is Gateway required for Artemis? I am sure it can add value if it is there, but is it needed? The first lander does not use it. The 'Second Provider' option may, but does it /need/ the extension modules?

2) €2.1 billion sounds like a lot, but is a fraction on the total Artemis budget. The SLS/Orion is already nearing $50 billion on development, with and with another 2 billion per flight. Add in another $10 for the landers program, and the ESA share becomes just 3.5% if all of it was just for seats.

The €2.1 billion figure includes ESA contributions to the ISS up until 2024

Do you have a better breakdown of this? I thought all first 3 were just till 2020, but I can only find statements about 1 or 1 and 2.

3) IIRC it were ESA, JAXA and other NASA partners that originally asked for the option to attach modules to Gateway back when it was the LOP-G on the way to Mars.

If it still is, it would make sense for those partners to pay rent to NASA for transport, station keeping etc. Not for NASA to pay to ESA for providing the module.

For the current use, equal sharing in Gateway costs seems reasonable. (But getting our own ESA transport to, and landers from Gateway seems a requirement to give it value)

ESA has already gotten a great deal for their contribution to Artemis. According to the latest GAO report, the US has spent $93 billion for Artemis through 2025, which doesn't even include the costs of any landings. Even ignoring development costs, each launch of SLS and Orion costs over $4 billion. NASA is certainly overspending on the program, mostly due to Boeing lobbying congress, but ESA is putting up less than 2 percent of the costs, and getting way more than 2% of the seats. I am glad they are helping, but they are currently getting more out than they are putting in. Ultimately for Artemis to be sustainable, SLS, Orion, the ESA service module, and even Gateway need to be abandoned in favor of Starship doing the entire mission itself, which it can do for much cheaper.

No posts

Ready for more?