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ESA Awards Thales Alenia Space and The Exploration Company Commercial Cargo Program Contract

ESA has announced the selection of Thales Alenia Space and The Exploration Company for study contracts valued at approximately 25 million euros ($27 million) each.

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Zac Aubert

Zac Aubert

Thu May 23 2024Written by Zac Aubert

The European Space Agency (ESA) has taken a significant step towards the development of commercial cargo and crew transportation services.

On May 22, ESA announced the selection of Thales Alenia Space and The Exploration Company for study contracts valued at approximately 25 million euros ($27 million) each. These contracts aim to advance the design of vehicles intended to transport cargo to and from the International Space Station (ISS) and future commercial space stations.

“Today ESA has further proven its leadership in space for Europe and European citizens. The signature of the low Earth orbit cargo return service contracts shows how ESA has modernized to meet the demands of the next era of the space economy,” - Josef Aschabcher, ESA Director General

Modeled after NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program from nearly two decades ago, ESA's cargo vehicle program is designed to support the development of commercial vehicles that can provide transportation services for cargo, with the potential to evolve into crewed spacecraft.

The contracts awarded to Thales Alenia Space and The Exploration Company cover the initial design phase of their respective vehicle concepts. ESA plans to seek funding for subsequent development phases at its next ministerial meeting in late 2025, with the objective of having at least one operational vehicle by 2028.

Thales Alenia Space, a major player in the European space industry, is developing a capsule compatible with the ISS, commercial space stations, and the lunar Gateway. The project will involve Thales facilities in Italy and France, and Altec, a joint venture of Thales Alenia Space Italia and the Italian Space Agency ASI, will manage the ground segment.

“Leveraging on its expertise in space exploration infrastructure and vehicles, the company, fully in line with the European Space Agency’s vision, wishes to invest in the development of technological solutions to give Europe a sustainable access to low Earth orbit,” Massimo Comparini, Thales Alenia Space Deputy CEO and Senior Executive Vice President

The Exploration Company, a well-funded startup, is focused on developing spacecraft for cargo transport in Earth orbit and cislunar space. The company's first demonstration mission is scheduled for the inaugural launch of Ariane 6, expected in the first half of June. Earlier this year, the company secured $44 million in a Series A funding round, marking one of the largest early-stage investments for a European space startup.

“We want to fly to the space station in ’27, so we’ve already started work on the final spacecraft,” - Hélène Huby, The Exploration Company Chief Executive

While working on ESA's program, Huby is also pursuing business with American companies involved in commercial space stations. Recently, The Exploration Company opened a U.S. office led by Mark Kirasich, a former NASA official who previously managed the Orion program.

“If everything goes well...we will have an American client and a European client.” - Hélène Huby, The Exploration Company Chief Executive

ESA has not disclosed the number of companies that submitted proposals for this program, nor has it explained why only two companies were selected despite an initial plan to select up to three. However, ESA officials have noted significant interest in the program, as evidenced by participation in procurement meetings.

Other companies that expressed interest included ArianeGroup, proposing a reusable vehicle named SUSIE, and Rocket Factory Augsburg, which has partnered with Space Cargo Unlimited and ATMOS Space Cargo to propose a cargo vehicle named Argo.