credit: DLR / caption: DLR's Phoenix demonstrator is dropped over Sweden's NEAT test range
While RLVs have featured as a part of ESA's Future Launcher Preparatory Programme I have personally never believed that a mini-Space Shuttle would be the outcome. Even the Russians with all their experience have never even put the flyback booster Baikal into operation - and that is just for a partially reusable system
Yet studies planned by ESA indicate a readiness to spend hundreds of thousands of euros on technologies that can only be for horizontal landing RLVs
In the meantime ESA is planning for its Intermediate Experimental Vehicle (IXV) to be launched by its new Vega rocket around 2010. Its objectives are to be a reentry system demonstration, technology experimentation and technology validation
But it will not land like the Shuttle, the IXV will either land by parachute in the sea or using airbags on land in Sweden's NEAT test range.
And linked to this flight test is an "advanced reentry flying qualities analysis" that will be benchmarked against the IXV flight.
I am only aware of the German Aerospace Center actually carrying out a spaceplane automatic landing demonstrator with its Phoenix vehicle at NEAT. The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency did something similar with its High Speed Flight Demonstration vehicle with the help of French space agency CNES, also over NEAT
But now ESA seems to be preparing for RLV work with plans for at least two research projects whose documentation states that "this activity is currently in the [General Studies programmes] work plan but will only be implemented after confirmation of financial support from delegations. At that time a planned quarter for tender issue will be confirmed and bidders will be able to express their interest in the activity."
Those delegations are likely to be for ESA's member states' ministerial meeting in November when the governments finalise what they are prepared to fund for the next few years
The two existing projects, with this note attached, both have budgets in excess of €500,000 and they are "Avionics architecture for future reusable space transportation systems" and "Integrated vehicle health management system demonstrator"
Another two potentially RLV related ESA projects, without the financial 'disclaimer', are called "habitation requirements", examining man-rated spacecraft rules, and "window design for manned spacecraft," which is pretty obvious
As for what really will transpire in the years to come, my money is on further work for what is being called the Ariane 5 "Mid-life Evolution"
This is to enhance this commercailly operating rocket's performance, perhaps to 12,000kg to geostationary orbit and improvements to its upstream manufacturing and assembly processes for the launcher