Page last updated at 00:22 GMT, Wednesday, 28 May 2008 01:22 UK

Berlin unveils 'crewed spaceship'

By Jonathan Amos
Science reporter, BBC News

ATV Evolution (Astrium)
The crew capsule replaces what was a cargo compartment on Jules Verne

A model of a proposed European manned spaceship has gone on show at the Berlin Air Show.

The design, which has been produced by EADS Astrium, is based on the unmanned "Jules Verne" freighter recently sent to the International Space Station.

Astrium says a crewed version of the truck is a logical evolution, and could fly in the next decade if it received support from European governments.

Key states - Germany, France, and Italy - are said to be very interested.

The model unveiled at the International Aerospace Exhibition (ILA) in Berlin is one-for-one in scale.

The idea is to combine what is essentially the avionics and propulsion end of Jules Verne (also known as the Automated Transfer Vehicle - ATV) with a crew compartment taking the place of the current cargo section.

European dependence

"From the outside, the overall shape is representative," explained Frank Pohlemann, the vice-president for strategy and market development at EADS Astrium Space Transportation.

Astrium believes a crewed evolution of the ATV is a logical next step

"The interior is more PR-orientated. We have three leather benches in there; we have touch screens - we can show simulated flights on the monitors; but of course the accessible volume is a lot larger than the real vehicle, which would have lots of equipment, a docking port, and these kinds of things."

But if the interior of the model has a somewhat playful feel for ILA showgoers, Astrium says it is very serious about wanting to take its space freighter to a new level of capability.

At the moment, European Space Agency (Esa) astronauts must fly into orbit in a Russian Soyuz or an American shuttle.

The issue of an independent European crew transportation system is currently a hot topic and likely to be on the agenda when space ministers meet for their meeting in The Hague in November.

Two steps

Astrium, which has funded the latest concept work itself, says the costs involved in developing its "ATV Evolution" would be very reasonable. It proposes the work be done in two stages.

The first would be to give the freighter a means of returning non-human items to Earth safely - something it cannot do at present.

How the crewed ship would look

This would be much appreciated by Europe's space partners who will have very limited means of returning materials - science results and failed components - from the International Space Station (ISS) once the US shuttles are retired in 2010.

Astrium says this stage could be flying by 2013 and would cost "well below one billion euros" to achieve.

If ministers agreed, the re-entry freight capsule could then be upgraded to carry three astronauts in a second stage of development.

The maiden mission of a crewed capsule could come in perhaps 2017.

Mr Pohlemann said the cost of achieving this objective would be "in the frame of a couple of billion" euros.

Ariane role

The two-stage approach would be a clear strategy that space ministers could follow and assess, the Astrium VP added.

"By having flights of the cargo system first, you can already contribute to the qualification of the later crew version," he told BBC News.

JULES VERNE - ATV
ATV (Nasa)
The ship was produced by a consortium of European companies led by EADS Astrium
The ATV is the first completely automated rendezvous and docking ship to go to the ISS
Once the US shuttle is retired, it will be the largest supply vessel going to the space station
Astrium believes it to be a versatile vehicle that could be adapted for crew transportation

"For us, this is about opening up options. Instead of diving into studies and spending the next five or six years with no concrete development, what we propose is to do something now and open up options."

Astrium is buoyed by the success of Jules Verne, which is packed with sophisticated navigation, rendezvous and docking technologies; and by its work done on the Columbus science module which was also despatched to the space station this year.

The pan-European company believes both vessels amply demonstrate just how far European competence in space technology has come in recent years; and that a crewed ship is now the obvious direction in which to go.

It would need a rocket to take it into orbit and the Ariane 5 is considered to be the most suitable option by Astrium. The rocket dominates the market for commercial satellite launches but was originally designed with human flights in mind.

"We believe you could take the existing Ariane-5 lower-composite and outfit it with a series of sensors to tell the vehicle riding on top that something might be going wrong or everything is fine," Mr Pohlemann said.

"We don't have these sensors at the moment, but for the rest we think we can take the existing Ariane 5."

'Small step'

The ATV Evolution is not the only concept work being undertaken in this arena.

Astrium itself is part of a separate Esa-funded study that is looking at the possibility of developing a crew capability in tandem with the Russians.

Known as the Crew Space Transportation System (CSTS), this project envisages a bigger, more capable ship than Russia's existing Soyuz system. However, this is almost certainly a more expensive option because it would require the use of an entirely new rocket.

Europe's biggest space company describes its ATV Evolution study as "an important contribution to the political decision-making process" - and it is timely.

Esa boss Jean-Jacques Dordain has spoken frequently of his desire to see an independent system; and the US space agency (Nasa) chief, Mike Griffin, has also urged Europe to build its own crew carrier.

Speaking in March at the time of the launch of Jules Verne, Mr Griffin said Europe needed only to take a "small step" to have that capability.

Jonathan.Amos-INTERNET@bbc.co.uk

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