The European Space Agency (ESA) has struck a deal with Axiom Space to send more Europeans into orbit. But does this partnership benefit the European taxpayers who fund the agency's operations?
On Wednesday, January 17, the third privately funded mission of US commercial spaceflight company Axiom Space is scheduled to lift off from Kennedy Space Center in Florida aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. Inside the Crew Dragon capsule will be a quartet of space travelers, including Swedish fighter pilot Markus Wandt.
Wandt will fly under the flag of the European Space Agency (ESA), although he is not an ESA astronaut. In the 2022 European astronaut recruitment round, Wandt did not make it to the final five of Europe's “suitable” astronauts, who become ESA crew members and begin astronaut training in 2023. Instead, he was selected as a member of the reserve ESA's first astronauts. Pool, a new matter developed by the European Space Agency with the express aim of encouraging its member states to pay for national missions in addition to their regular contributions to the ESA budget. Sweden was the first to seize the opportunity in April last year, paying for Wandt's two-week space flight through a contract brokered by the European Space Agency as part of a memorandum of understanding the agency signed with US commercial company Axiom Space in October 2023.
Ticket to ride
Wandt is the first, but not the only, backup astronaut to get his ticket into space, while his seemingly more successful colleagues who have made up the proper astronaut team are still in training. Poland has also signed up and expects to send its reservist, Sawałowsz Oznański, on another mission for Axiom later this year.
Compared to their total investments in space activities, the price these countries pay to see their citizens floating in microgravity is insignificant. At the ESA Ministerial Council in November 2022, the triennial summit of member states that decides Agency budget For the next three-year period – Sweden pledged €317 million ($355 million).
according to Advertisement 2018, Axiom Space It sells 10-day space flights for $55 million per seat. The total cost per task will likely be slightly higher. Last year, Hungary signed an agreement Contract directly with Axiom Sending a Hungarian citizen to the International Space Station independently of the European Space Agency. Hungary discussed the plans For a national mission in 2022, the project cost was estimated at about $100 million at the time. Based on this estimate, Sweden could easily pay the equivalent of its annual contribution to the European Space Agency's budget to send Wandt into space.
In addition to Wandt and Oznansky, ESA's reserve group of astronauts includes nine other candidates, none of whom have been officially appointed to ESA. By filling this reserve pool of astronauts, ESA appears to have created a market for Axiom Space, a move that may raise questions given that the agency's purpose is to boost the European space sector. In fact, the Constitutive Agreement of the European Space Agency It enshrines the principle of geographic return, which gives Member States a return of at least 80 percent on their contributions to the ESA budget in the form of research and development contracts. Although the cost of Axiom missions is paid for by the European Space Agency, most of that money goes to Texas-based Axiom Space and its launch provider, SpaceX.
The European Space Agency declined to reveal details of the arrangement between Axiom Space and Sweden, describing it as “proprietary data as this is carried out through a confidential commercial contract.” The Swedish National Space Agency did not respond to Ars Technica's request for comment.
Poland's announcement of a national Oznanski mission was made in August last year, accompanied by a stunning increase in the country's contribution to the European Space Agency's budget. In the 2022 Ministerial Council, Poland allocated €197 million for the agency's activities from 2023 to 2025. In August, the Polish Space Agency doubled this contribution, committing an additional €295 million ($322 million). It's not clear how much of that money will go toward Oznansky's space flight.
In the months following the announcement of the astronaut reserve group, Axiom Space began actively reaching out to the reservists' home countries with offers to send these men and women into space, according to the British newspaper “Daily Mail”. Media in the Czech Republicwhich recently declined the offer.
In addition to Sweden and Poland, the United Kingdom also intends to use Axiom's services and conduct a British-only mission that will be headed by semi-retired astronaut Tim Peake from the European Space Agency. It will also include Rosemary Cogan from the United Kingdom, who was recently appointed as one of ESA's career astronauts, as well as reservist Megan Christian and astronaut John McFaul. Unlike the Swedish and Polish missions, the British mission will be funded by UK private industry rather than taxpayers, according to BBC.
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