ESA's 2030+ roadmap envisions Europeans on the Moon and Mars

But the agency is distinctly aware that it needs more autonomy

The European Space Agency (ESA) has released a strategy roadmap to take it into the 2030s and beyond.

The publication comes on the eve of much-anticipated images from the James Webb Space Telescope, on which ESA partnered with NASA and others, but that makes one of the themes of the roadmap all the more stark – ESA needs more autonomy.

"As recent events have shown," the document begins, "the geopolitical context can unexpectedly become unstable."

The ExoMars Rosalind Franklin rover is a prime example – due for launch this year on a Russian rocket, ESA's Terrae Novae roadmap has moved the departure date to no earlier than 2026 with a landing in 2027.

The rover, according to the document, doesn't even have a lander at present (the Russian-built original is currently not an option). And 2026 seems highly optimistic – The Register understands that 2028 is more likely, assuming the mission is not cancelled before then. Even the follow-up Mars Sample-Return mission is in jeopardy.

"Not having autonomous capabilities is indeed a hard lesson learned," the document goes on, "developing major scientific instrumentation or technological demonstration capabilities without mastering the delivery to their destination bears a high programmatic and financial risk."

That said, ESA will not be averse to international partnerships going forwards. It will simply think a bit harder about redundancy should things take an abrupt and unexpected turn.

The document both looks forward to the future (with impressive renderings of ESA logos adorning lunar landers and missions to Mars) while also showing open regret over some of the missteps of the past. "A decision or lack thereof has long-lasting consequences," ESA writes, "for example the rejection of the Hermes programme, the discontinuation of the ATV or the missed decision in 2012 of developing capability for precision robotic lunar landings."

The ATV was ESA's cargo freighter. Some of the lessons learned from the project found their way into the European Service Module (ESM.) Hermes was an ambitious spaceplane project finally abandoned when ESA signed up with NASA and Roscosmos to build and operate the ISS and the immediate need for a European crew transport system evaporated.

Still, ESA continues to aim high, with Europeans estimated to be on the Moon by 2030, on Mars by 2040, and plans for the agency to utilize its own cargo and crew transportation. The roadmap is, however, a sign that the agency fully intends to learn from past missteps and take a more thoughtful approach to partnerships, international or otherwise. ®

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