The news was only announced to a small group of people. The German Aerospace Center (DLR) and the aerospace group EADS Astrium had invited a mere handful of journalists to Bremen. Hardly any information had been revealed before the meeting, only nebulous hints.
Now the reason for the secrecy has become apparent. Astrium is planning to add a new chapter to the history of space exploration. Engineers have quietly been developing a plan that would lead to the entry of Europe into manned space travel -- if it gets political backing.
Planners say manned European spaceflight could become a reality within nine years. The essence of the plan is to turn Europe's unmanned Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) into a full spacecraft in two stages.
The Europeans are proud of the school bus-sized vehicle. Its first incarnation, dubbed the "Jules Verne," successfully finished its maiden flight a few weeks ago and completed an automated docking at the International Space Station (ISS). "We caused a stir in the world with that," DLR head Johann-Dietrich Wörner said. Just after the launch, Wörner received congratulatory text messages from NASA boss Michael Griffin and his Russian counterpart Anatoly Perminov. There were also euphoric reactions when the ATV guided the ISS to a higher orbit as planned.
An Unmanned Version in Five Years
At the moment, however, the showcase "Made in Europe" project cannot return to Earth. "Jules Verne" lacks the heat shield it would need to survive the hellish return trip through the atmosphere. "ATV Evolution" -- the project's working title -- is meant to solve this problem.
The first step, according to Astrium boss Evert Dudok, is to design an unmanned version of the craft by 2013. This part of the project was "very manageable," said Dudok, not least because such a capsule could easily be transported on an existing European Ariane 5 rocket.
The spaceship couldn't transport astronauts, DLR chief Wörner admitted, but it could be used to retrieve defective technical equipment and bring scientific experiments back to Earth. "We see that the ISS has a clear need for this kind of thing," he said.
If the Americans axe their Space Shuttle fleet in 2010 as planned, only Russian Soyuz spacecrafts will be left to transport materials back to Earth -- and they have room for three crew but virtually no cargo.
In the second stage of the plan, the European spacecraft would be overhauled in order to transport astronauts. But there are still some technical challenges to solve. First, the spacecraft has to be fitted with a life-support system. Second, a device has to be added to catapult the transporter away from the launch rocket if there is a problem. The engineers would also have to make some changes to the Ariane 5 rocket itself, modifying it to include an emergency blast-off mechanism for the astronauts' capsule in case of problems.
According to Astrium estimates, a manned spaceship could lift off four years after the first stage -- around 2017. The capsule in the so-called Viking form would have a diameter of 3.3 meters (10.8 feet) and space for three astronauts -- more spacious than the Russian Soyuz, at least. At the end of the journey it would parachute into the sea, somewhere close to the equator, preferably along the African coast.
A Fruitless Project in the Past
The European spaceship would have a total weight of nine tons and could fly even further than the ISS. The European astronauts could travel in the spacecraft for two to three weeks, which could prove important given that the future of the ISS project is uncertain after 2015. "We also need to think of human space flight beyond the ISS," Wörner says.
The objective now is to tackle the project one step at a time. After an unmanned freighter successfully brings back cargo from space, engineers can "discuss further options."
The European aerospace industry is clearly exerting a little more pressure and placing great hope on the manned space project. The industry's future depends on landing a large order after the European ISS module Columbus and the ATV are completed.
For decades, the German aerospace industry has explored concepts for manned space flight -- at great cost and without lasting success. It poured massive resources into the orbital glider Sänger, for example. However, it turned out to be extremely expensive, was believed to damage the ozone layer and was shelved along with the "Sänger II." A similar fate befell the European Hermes project, which was promoted heavily by France in the mid-1980s. But with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the political landscape changed -- and costs escalated. The project, which cost billions, was abandoned in 1993.
Up to the Politicans
Politics will ultimately determine whether Europe launches manned spaceflights. And this week, Astrium didn't want to provide too many specific details about costs. But according to Dudok the project will not exceed €1 billion ($1.55 billion).
That sounds very optimistic. DLR board member Thomas Reiter recently told SPIEGEL ONLINE that overhauling the ATV for manned flight would cost "less than €10 billion ($15.5 billion)."
The ministers of the European Space Agency (ESA) states will meet for a conference in the Netherlands in late autumn. According to DLR chief Wörner, the German government has already sent some cautiously positive signals. The Italian and French space agencies are interested in the ATV Evolution, he added.
Less than a year ago, Wörner told SPIEGEL that "we need our own manned access to space. The current situation is embarrassing for us." As long as it relies on Russia and the US to provide manned space flight, ESA can't claim to be independent.
In that light, the "ATV Evolution" proposal is only logical. But it's up to ESA's member states to determine whether the proposal will develop enough political support -- and hence recieve the money it needs.