A shipyard in low Earth orbit that assembles Moon or Mars ships consisting of multinational elements for propulsion, habitation and re-entry capsules is a post-International Space Station vision being drawn up by the European Space Agency and the Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos).
While agency talks continue on extending ISS use from its original end date of 2016 to at least 2020, ESA and its Russian counterpart discussed in mid-March space infrastructure that could support a capability for missions beyond LEO.
Called the spaceships working group, that meeting was attended by ESA director general Jean-Jacque Dordain and Roscosmos and European Commission officials.
The involvement of the EC follows plans for a "high-level meeting on space exploration" to raise spaceflight's profile with European Union member states. The EC event will take EU spaceflight participation beyond the 27-nation bloc's past funding of ISS-based scientific research. Only two of ESA's 18 member states are not EU nations.
In a 16 May interview with flightglobal.com, ESA human spaceflight director Simonetta Di Pippo explained that in June in the Hague the international architecture working group, which consists of more than a dozen of the world's space agencies, will meet to discuss Moon and Mars exploration and that China would attend. China is expected to have its own space station by 2025.
A key European capability for this post-ISS LEO infrastructure will be ESA's cargo return advanced re-entry vehicle (ARV). Di Pippo also said that a €14 million ($19 million) 18-month ARV phase A contract will be awarded by July.
That work would inform a 2011 ESA member states ministerial council decision on whether to fully develop the ARV that would come into service in 2017 for the ISS and still be available by 2025.