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Crew Space Transportation System - A Viable Alternative to NASA's Orion Program?

written by: Jason C. Chavis•edited by: George Adcock•updated: 6/30/2011

The Crew Space Transportation System (CSTS) is designed to allow for low Earth orbit (LEO) missions, with the possibility of more extensive missions, such as a journey to the Moon. Primarily, the project is geared towards a replacement for the retired Space Shuttle when servicing the ISS.

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    Goals of the Crew Space Transportation System

    The European Space Agency (ESA) announced in May 2008 that initial study plans had been conducted, which helped determine the direction of the program. The CSTS would be a manned capsule featuring a service module designed to carry cargo. It is estimated to have a total mass of 18,000 kilograms.

    While the overall goals of the CSTS program is to handle all LEO missions, preliminary research shows that the vehicle could achieve lunar orbit and surface landings with a two or three stage design. However, as of 2008, the ESA estimates that the soonest a vehicle could be safely ready for either LEO or lunar missions would be 2017.

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    A Joint European-Russian Venture

    Europe's Proposed Crew Space Transportation System 

    While NASA has nothing to do with the project, the ESA and Russian Space Agency (RSA) both have conducted preliminary research on the project in a joint venture. With the Soyuz program dating back to the 1970s and the ESA having no access to the Space Shuttle, both governing bodies found a unified approach could assist the organizations from both a technological and financial standpoint.

    Early research was promising. However, as of 2008, both organizations have decided to take their own paths in further development. The ESA has focused on a more cargo-based project revolving around the Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV), presently being used to service the ISS. Russia has chosen to modernize its Soyuz spacecraft technology utilizing the CSTS designs.

    Above left: Europe's Proposed Crew Space Transportation System as of 2008. (Supplied by Supercopter at Wikimedia Commons; GNU Free Documentation License;

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    Alternative to the Orion System

    Orion in Lunar Orbit - Artist Rendition 

    Following the Columbia disaster, President George W. Bush unveiled a new forward-looking mission for NASA in 2004. Known as the Vision for Space Exploration program, NASA intended to return to the Moon by 2020 and achieve a successful manned mission to Mars ten years later. To accomplish this, NASA began to develop the Orion space vehicle, part of the overall Constellation project.  In promoting this project, NASA stated officially that it had no interest in working with Europe, Russia or any other nation on this project. This left the ESA and RSA with no choice but to pursue the CSTS.


    But without the heavy funding from the United States government, the project continuously remained without adequate budgets according to the ESA officials, driving an even larger wedge between European administrators and their Russian counterparts.

    Above right: Orion in Lunar Orbit - artist's rendition. (Supplied by NASA; Public Domain;

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    Challenges for the CSTS

    Two of the largest problems facing the CSTS was the challenge of finding an adequate launch site and internal competition within the European Union for funding the various sub-projects. The ESA planned to utilize its launch site in the French Guiana, while the Russians insisted on building a new spaceport in Vostochny. At the same time, the German Aerospace Center insisted on modifications to the vehicle that further pushed back development. As of 2009, the earliest possible test flights could begin is in 2013.

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    "Advanced Crew Transportation System" Russian Space Web

    "European Space Transportation Details" Hyperbola

    "Europe Mulls Human Launch System" BBC News