Europe's drive for technological non-dependence in space will not extend to manned spaceflight capabilities, says European Space Agency director-general Jean-Jacques Dordain.
Speaking at the Paris air show, Dordain restated his conviction that a key lesson of the International Space Station experience is that ISS partners have made a "collective mistake" in failing to devise a common transport policy.
The result, he said, is that following the final flight of the US Space Shuttle later this year there will be just one route to the space station, via Soyuz. And that, he said, means "the situation today is uncomfortable. We run the risk of being glued to the ground."
Working independently, rather than collaboratively with a common policy on interfaces between spacecraft and a collective vision of what is needed to sustain the ISS and other joint missions, has also resulted in both ESA and the Japanese space agency developing cargo delivery ships - ESA's ATV and Japan's HTV - but no-one devising a cargo return capability to replace the Shuttle.
Transport, he stressed, represents 50% of the cost of space operations, so spacefaring nations must discuss their common needs and work out "who does what".
Dordain stressed that Europe will not unilaterally devise a human-capable system, but may contribute to one. He said that ISS partners might in the autumn "converge" on a modular concept that would allow each partner to develop spacecraft to suit their needs while remaining interoperable.
ESA's second Automated Transfer Vehicle robotic cargo ship, Johannes Kepler, was de-orbited on 21 June following its successful mission to deliver supplies and spare parts to the International Space Station. The vehicle was packed with rubbish before its descent, partial destruction in the heat of re-entry and ultimate Pacific Ocean splashdown.
ATV-3, Edoardo Amaldi, is scheduled for launch in February or March 2012, followed one and two years later by a fourth, to be named Albert Einstein, and fifth ATV. There is no plan at present to extent the programme beyond these five spacecraft.