Against the backdrop of the delayed Discovery shuttle launch, Europe and Russia and decided to build a space shuttle to crack through the space monopoly held by NASA. Can they successfully take on the US?
For years, the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Russians planned on creating their own spaceship, developing such probes as the EU's Hermes and the Russian Buran. But they never threatened the top place of the American space shuttles.
Now, ESA and its Russian counterpart have come up with a plan for a new manned shuttle, the Clipper, which should make its maiden voyage by 2012. And officials hope it will have fewer technical issues than the NASA shuttles: the Columbia crashed due to a technical malfunction two years ago, while the Challenger exploded on take-off in 1986.
Wanting more independence in space
"The Clipper will lead the way for this new cooperation," Manuel Valls, a leading ESA official who helps plan the agency's manned space exploration strategy, told the Associated Press. "Both agencies will work over the next few years to construct a detailed work schedule and figure out the various ways we can collaborate."
A new type of shuttle
The probe, the creation of the Russian space corporation RKK Energia, would be a reusable plane that would glide back to Earth, holding up to six people. Officials say it would be used for ferry services to the International Space Station or for space tourism.
Clipper's predecessor, Buran
The shuttle, which will weigh less and have less cargo capacity than the NASA shuttles, is expected to cost about 1.5 billion euros ($1.8 billion). The ESA plans to make a request of an initial 50 million euros at a meeting with European leaders in December.
Wanting to compete
Europe has long been on the sidelines when it comes to space exploration. While sending up rockets such as the Ariane 5, it has had to collaborate with the US or Russia in order to send astronauts into space because it needs a transport component to its shuttles.
Developing the Clipper would free the Europeans from dependency on the US rockets and its space program, which slowed due to the Columbia crash and budget cuts, and give them a spacecraft to send humans into space at will. And even though the Europeans have developed a cargo spaceship for the space station, officials say that redesigning this shuttle would cost more than developing a new one.
As for unmanned probes, the Europeans will send one towards Mercury and another on a mapping expedition in 2011.