Half a year after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the repercussions of this war on the European space industry have been profound. In particular, Europe cut off all contacts with the Russian launch industry and canceled a joint mission to place a European rover on Mars with the help of a Russian rocket and a Russian lander.
The process of untangling the deep links between the European space program and the Russian space industry fell largely on the shoulders of an Austrian space researcher named Josef Schbacher, who had been director general of the European Space Agency for less than a year when Russian tanks began to roll into Ukraine.
Like most Europeans, he was aghast at what he saw. “Look what’s happening on the ground,” he said in an interview with Ars. “I am really disgusted with the invasion of Ukraine. We see it every day. What is happening there does not correspond to our European values, and we cannot work with a partner who completely tramples on these values.”
Soon after the Russian invasion, relations between the two space programs collapsed. Russian workers at Europe’s main spaceport in French Guiana quit their job and go home. The launch of OneWeb satellites on a Russian rocket, mediated by the European Space Agency, has been cancelled. These 36 satellites are still stuck in Kazakhstan, recently acquired by OneWeb Write off $229 million.
Before the war, Europe relied on Russia’s Soyuz missile for its medium-lift needs – payloads larger than the Vega could accommodate but not large enough to withstand the more expensive Ariane 5 missile. This partnership was expected to continue even as Europe introduces a new generation of missiles, the Vega-C and Ariane 6, into service. But no longer.
“I can’t see a rebuilding of the cooperation we had in the past,” Asbacher said. “I am speaking here on behalf of my member states. They all have pretty much the same opinion. This is really something where the behavior of the European Space Agency will reflect the geopolitical situation of the member states at this point. I think that is very important. Net.”
But this division has left Europe with a short-term challenge. It had planned to launch five Soyuz in 2022 and 2023 to bring European payloads into orbit. Since the new Ariane 6 rocket won’t be ready to enter service until at least next year, Aschbacher has had to look for alternatives, including the continent’s commercial launch competitor, US-based SpaceX.
“You have to see it from a very unsentimental and commercial point of view,” he said. “We had five expected launches on Soyuz, and they were cancelled. Right now, I’m in contact with different operators. SpaceX is one of them, but also Japan and India, and we basically want to see if our satellites can be launched on their rockets. Sometimes there are a lot Of emotion in this. This, to me, is a very practical management decision. There is no financial offer on the table. We have technically found out if this is possible, but the exercise is still in progress.”
Ironically, it was NASA’s work that fostered deeper cooperation between the European Space Agency and Russia. In 2012, to help pay for bypassing the James Webb Space Telescope, NASA canceled its participation in the ExoMars mission that sought to land a European spacecraft on Mars for the first time. In the wake of this decision, Europe turned to Russia, which became a full partner in providing the Proton rocket and landing module.
Now, a decade later, the European Space Agency and the US Space Agency are discussing working together on ExoMars again. Given today’s political climate, NASA was more than willing to help get the European rover, named Rosalind Franklin, to the surface of Mars safely.
Aschbacher was in Florida earlier this month to launch Artemis I. Despite the tensions with Russia, he has been optimistic about the future and Europe’s partnership with NASA, which looks stronger than ever. As part of NASA’s Artemis program, Europe is building a service module for the Orion spacecraft, which is critical to providing power and propulsion for the capsule where the astronauts reside. This partnership will likely extend to the lunar surface, and should see European astronauts land on the moon later this decade.
“It’s important to be a critical component of this mission,” Asbacher said. “The European service unit is on the critical path, and without it, astronauts cannot be brought to the moon and back. This is huge. During Apollo, there was only the United States and the Soviet Union. Europe was watching from both sides, and of course to be intrigued, but not engaged. Directly. Today is a historical history of America, of course, but it is even more historic for Europe because we are part of it.”
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