Is there a future for the European Astronaut Corps?

Is there a future for the European Astronaut Corps?

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The European Space Agency and the Swedish National Space Agency signed a letter of intent in April 2023 to fly an astronaut to the International Space Station (ISS) aboard an Axiom Space mission. On 12 September, ESA reserve astronaut Marcus Wandt was announced as part of the four-person Ax-3 mission.

Ax-3 will be the first all-European commercial crewed mission to the ISS. The Spanish-born retired NASA astronaut Michael López-Alegría will be the flight’s chief astronaut and commander. Wandt will be joined by the crew's pilot, Walter Villadei, who is an Italian Air Force colonel, and fellow mission specialist Alper Gezeravcı of Türkiye. The flight will also be the first for an ESA member state-sponsored project astronaut.

Wandt was one of eleven reserve astronauts selected by ESA in late 2022. Although preference for flights is given to career astronauts, the agency’s astronaut policy does allow for member states to sponsor crewed spaceflights outside of the ESA budget but within its purview. The astronaut becomes an ESA staff member for the duration of the mission, from pre-flight to post-flight, as a project astronaut before returning to his or her reserve status following the completion of the mission.

Sweden's selection to go outside of the traditional astronaut mission selection process is part of a larger trend. In August, Poland announced that it had signed an agreement with Axiom alongside ESA to send its own astronaut to the ISS. Although the crew member who will fly aboard that mission has not yet been announced, it will likely be ESA astronaut reserve Sławosz Uznański. Hungry has selected to go completely outside the purview of ESA, setting aside $100 million for its own private astronaut mission to the ISS. As the country does not currently have any of its citizens in the European Astronaut Corps, it will have to complete its own selection process.

As ESA member states increasingly look outside the agency to conduct human spaceflight missions, the agency is going to have to make a choice. Will it be content for member states to look outside of Europe for providers, or will it finally commit to developing sovereign launch capabilities? And if it chooses not to, will there be any need for the European Astronaut Corps in a future that does not include the ISS?

ESA initiated a search for its first class of astronauts on 28 March 1977. The agency stressed that it was looking for normally-fit scientists rather than super-fit astronauts. That first selection process was concluded on 18 May 1978 with the announcement of the first ESA astronaut class. By the late 1990s, however, European astronaut efforts were fragmented, with ESA, CNES, ASI, and DLR all operating their own astronaut corps.

I first became aware of the European Astronaut Policy in April 2023 with the announcement of the Sweden-sponsored Axiom mission. In a press release, ESA Director General Josef Aschbacher explained, “The ESA astronaut policy was developed for exactly these opportunities, flying on commercial flights in partnership as we transition Europe’s access to space and diversify the space market.”

This began a several-month-long search to get hold of a copy of the policy that was hampered by the fact that DG Aschbacher, from what I can tell, incorrectly called it the ESA Astronaut Policy and not the European Astronaut Policy. The agency itself denied my request to view the document, stating, “ESA policy documents are documents for internal use with ESA and Member States and are not releasable to the public.” However, after finally figuring out the correct name for the document, I was able to find a copy of the policy and a number of supporting documents in the Historical Archives of the European Union.

In a 21 September 2001 memo, the introduction of the policy is noted as being important for the preparation of the European Astronaut Corps for ISS operations, for potential future manned space programmes and more generally to take into account high level overall objectives of the European Space Agency. The policy also phased out the national astronaut corps of Italy, Germany, and France, allowing the agency to bring the efforts of its member states under one centralized roof.

The most recent variation of the European Astronaut Policy, from what I can tell, was published in June 2002. The document covers all aspects of the structure and management of the European Astronaut Corps. It also includes a breakdown of the selection criteria for European astronauts for flight assignments. According to the document, flight assignments are decided by the DG himself, and that flight assignments should focus on excellence. There is also a provision that states that all ESA astronauts should be assured at least one mission unless performance or discipline is not sufficient. However, for the purposes of this discussion, the Nationally Sponsored Missions section is of importance.

Here, the document describes that member states are allowed to make use of “European Astronaut Corps resources” provided that certain conditions are met.

Nationally sponsored missions are implemented by ESA and the sponsoring Member State on the basis of an agreement between ESA and the State.

Astronaut activities are managed by ESA.

The ESA astronaut assigned to a nationally sponsored mission continues to be a member of the European Astronaut Corps, and, as such, abides to and is protected by the ESA Staff Rules, Regulations, and Instructions.

All communications and image aspects of the ESA astronaut related to the mission must reflect and respect his/her European and national identities.

Nationally sponsored missions shall allow for an ESA share of the experimental programme, accommodation, and resources permitting.

Countries sponsoring a mission shall bear the costs incurred by ESA.

Interestingly, a previous version of the policy from 2001 included the stipulation that “Nationally sponsored missions should remain a complementary element to ESA spaceflight missions.” However, this stipulation was removed in the June 2002 policy.

On the implementation side, ESA retains responsibility for:

Crew operations activities in support of mission management (pre-flight, in-flight, and post-flight).

Medical operations.

Management of the ESA experimental programme for the mission.

Implementation and/or coordination of astronaut training for system and payload.

Coordination with relevant ISS multilateral bodies.

Provision of the backup astronaut after consultation with the sponsoring nation.

The sponsoring state is required to reimburse the agency for all services provided. The agency also offers optional additional services, including “full mission management, timeline, and mission planning, procedures development, additional infrastructure and local services in Russia.” That last one is, of course, no longer relevant.

The key element here, though, is that this only applies when a member state makes use of “European Astronaut Corps resources.” This applies to the Sweden and Poland deals, but since Hungary does not have an ESA-selected astronaut or astronaut reserve, it will not apply to that specific mission. This means that although ESA does enjoy some control over non-ESA flights to space, it is not absolute.

In 2023, Sweden has committed to contributing €84 million to the ESA annual budget. A ticket aboard an Axiom flight costs approximately €55 million. However, this will likely be higher when the funds to reimburse ESA for its role are applied. Even when we consider that base price, Sweden is spending the equivalent of 65% of what it contributes to ESA in a year for a 14-day trip for one of its citizens.

For Poland, the country's €44.7 million contribution to ESA for 2023 is €10.3 million less than it will spend on the Axiom flight. Again, this will likely be even higher with its required reimbursement to ESA. That was, however, only true as of late 2022. In July of this year, a month before the announcement of Poland’s Axiom deal, the country announced that it would increase its contribution by €295 million between 2023 and 2025. If that’s an equal split over three years, it accounts for €98.3 million extra per year. So, €143 million for 2023. However, it’s unclear if that includes the funds to reimburse ESA for its Axiom flight.

The $100 million set aside by Hungary for its mission is several times larger than the €24.7 million the country will contribute to ESA in 2023. What’s more, this will be completely outside of ESA’s purview, ensuring that very little, if any, of the $100 million will pass through the agency.

Hungry launched its Hungarian to Orbit (HUNOR) programme in 2021 with the aim of sending an astronaut to the ISS by 2024. The programme was part of the country's first space strategy, which sought to strengthen Hungary's international role and broaden its external relations, among other key objectives. The HUNOR programme, as a result, appears to be an attempt for the country to announce its intention of becoming a space power in its own right on a grand scale.

To be clear, I do not think that any country should feel obliged to contribute all or even a large percentage of its budget for space activities to ESA. It is the responsibility of ESA to make the benefits of contributing so attractive that countries actively want to do so. However, the agency has historically failed to do that for all but a handful of countries.

Yes, France, Germany, the UK, and Italy contribute over 60% of the agency’s total budget, ensuring that those countries have an equally large influence on the agency’s direction. France, in particular, has an incredibly large influence on ESA, down to the agency’s headquarters being located in France and French being the only “official ESA language” other than English. With such a significant amount of decision-making power concentrated within such a small group of the agency’s 22 member states, how is a country like Hungary supposed to abandon its own space priorities to fund those of the agency’s richer member states? And yes, the agency’s geo-return policies do ensure the country did directly benefit, but that would still be within a scope of priorities that they do not have a significant say in defining. Would the country’s influence in the agency change significantly if it poured the $100 million it has set aside for its HUNOR programme? It’s unlikely since that would still be less than 2.5% of ESA’s total yearly budget. So, why not spend it on a mission that will likely be very popular among the Hungarian population? If the country really pushes the astronaut selection process, its national space programme could get several months or even years' worth of invaluable interest from its population out of it.

If I were in charge of the space programmes of Ireland, Portugal, Greece, Finland, Estonia, Romania, Norway, Luxembourg, Slovenia, or Latvia, all countries without an active ESA astronaut or astronaut reserve, I would certainly be looking at Hungary’s approach as a blueprint to follow.

in 2023 alone, two ESA member states chose to fund a human spaceflight mission privately. Although only time will tell, I don’t foresee this as an anomaly but rather the beginning of a trend. ESA can select to facilitate where it can be involved and ignore where it can’t. If this is what the agency chooses to do, the potential future of the European Astronaut Corps appears bleak. However, it can also make a choice to harness the interest bubbling up within member states to fund its own human spaceflight programme, a goal that DG Aschbacher has championed since he ascended to the agency’s highest office.

An ESA-sponsored PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) report looking at the socioeconomic benefits of a human spaceflight programme predicted that European industry could generate up to €10 billion in revenue between 2028 and 2040 by ferrying astronauts to and from space. The report also found that the failure to develop crewed launch capabilities would cost up to €1.7 billion, with the cost coming from the acquisition of European institutional seats aboard non-European providers, which is precisely what Sweden, Poland, and Hungary are doing.

I’m unconvinced about the €10 billion in revenue prediction. That may be true, but how much is it going to cost to develop and operate the system between 2028 and 2040? My guess is that it's significantly more. I don’t think this is the most compelling argument for the development of human spaceflight capabilities. However, the report does have a nugget or two.

The report identifies two key elements that Europe will require to realize the €10 billion in revenue prediction. First, industry would need to commit to investing in the technology and operational development of crew launch capabilities. Second, there would have to be a long-term institutional commitment to procure seats to encourage investment from industry.

The need for long-term institutional commitment from either ESA or the EU is THE key element to developing a European human spaceflight programme. To really do that right, however, ESA will need to bring everyone along, not just the likes of France, Germany, the UK, and Italy. It will need to commit to giving every country a chance to be represented aboard one of these flights and not just the precious few.

At the moment, only four countries (Italy, Germany, Denmark, and France) are represented among the active members of the European Astronaut Corps. The recent astronaut selection will add four additional countries (Spain, the UK, Belgium, and Switzerland) to the list of career astronauts, although Denmark will lose its representation when Andreas Mogensen retires. Four more countries are added with the addition of the astronaut reserves (Austria, Czech Republic, Poland, and Sweden). This leaves 10 countries with no representation. And considering that ESA astronaut selections only occur every five to ten years, that’s unlikely to change anytime soon.

The arguments against expanding the corps to include astronauts from these countries are that there isn’t enough flight capacity and that these countries do not contribute enough or do not contribute at all to human spaceflight. The first augment is understandable in the short term, but that will change. In the short term, the ESA astronaut reserves were the perfect opportunity for ESA to show its intention of 100% inclusion. It failed to do so. Not only did they fail to do so, but they gave reserve astronaut positions to countries that had a career astronaut selected. This, in my opinion, was a lobbying and public relations failure. The budgetary contributions argument is equally as weak. Instead of ensuring that these countries will never contribute, why not take the first step and show your willingness to include them in the future of European human spaceflight?

So many of my views on this subject are informed by the specter of Hermes. The overly complicated and ambitious system was forced through by a few countries (just one, really) that would benefit the most despite the drawbacks of the concept. Had the agency pursued something like the BEA Multirole Capsule and guaranteed inclusion, Europe could have been significantly further along in its human spaceflight journey.

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