ESA’s Director-General, Josef Aschbacher advocates a rationale of European autonomy as regards manne flights. The astronaut Thomas Pesquet has assured us that he and his colleagues are “ready to boldly go exploring for Europe.”

It will soon be 30 years ago the European Space Agency (ESA) chose to make partnerships for manned flights. Indeed, in 1992, the Hermes small shuttle project (which was to be launched from the top of Ariane 5) was decided against. Without autonomy in the field, ESA therefore sends its own astronauts on mission with the manned craft of agencies with which it is in partnership, namely NASA (United States) and Roscosmos (Russia).
Taking up his position on 1 March 2021, ESA’s Director-General, Josef Aschbacher decided to look again at the question of European autonomy in manned flights.


The rationale for partnership has enabled ESA astronauts to carry out many missions with NASA’s space shuttle (and recently SpaceX capsules) and Roscosmos’s Soyuz going into orbit to the Mir and ISS stations. Indeed, with the ISS, ESA has been able to show its capacities (and therefore those of European manufacturers) as regards manned flight with modules for the station built in Europe and the ATV robot cargo ships (while they do not carry any passengers, these cargo ships had to meet the demanding standards for manned flights, as astronauts have access to their pressurised sections). A demonstration which shows that ESA is a leading partner in NASA’s Artemis programme to return to the Moon.
However, during his New Year wishes to the press in January 2022, ESA’s Director-General Josef Aschbacher defended the idea of going a stage further and giving Europe autonomy as regards manned flights (video below which starts at 41:40).

Josef Aschbacher noted that there is no European manned spaceship while the economic weights of Europe, the United States and China are certainly different, but “of the same order of magnitude.” He explained the rationale very directly: “quite simply because we have not enough money,” based on a comparison between American and European space exploration budgets.
To complement his speech, Josef Aschbacher was able to rely on the presence of Thomas Pesquet. The ESA’s French astronaut (see the video above from 46:50) considered that Europe was again at a decisive crossroads and that it “should be bold in the field of space exploration.We are ready to boldly go exploring for Europe if we are commissioned to do so.”

At ESA Director-General Josef Aschbacher's New Year wishes to the press, Thomas Pesquet took the floor to support the rationale of European autonomy in human spaceflight. Credit: Cité de l'espace (ESA video capture)

At ESA Director-General Josef Aschbacher’s New Year wishes to the press, Thomas Pesquet took the floor to support the rationale of European autonomy in human spaceflight. Credit: Cité de l’espace (ESA video capture)

Just before Thomas Pesquet’s intervention, the Director-General of ESA recognised that this subject “goes beyond the space sector … this is a political discussion which concerns all the elements of society.” And the next major date on this theme will be the Space Summit of 16 February in Toulouse.


This Space Summit which will be held in Toulouse on 16 February 2022 will include two parts. A press release from the French Presidency of the Council of the European Union explained that the first will consist of an “Informal Competitiveness Council in Space format” and the second an “Informal Council of ESA Ministers.” All this to discuss European space strategy.” Clearly, while it may not be about passing budgets to start studies for an autonomy initiative for manned flights, there will be enough to initiate the political discussion desired by ESA Director-General Josef Aschbacher. A prerequisite before another equally important date, that of a meeting of the agency at ministerial level planned for November this year.

Title Image Credit: Cité de l’espace from ESA visual elements