European Space Agency signs agreement with Starlab developers to secure ongoing access to low Earth orbit

The European Space Agency has signed a new agreement with the developers of the Starlab commercial space station, with the aim of establishing a “sustained access to space for Europe,” the groups said in a statement.

The memorandum of understanding (MOU) between ESA, Voyager Space and Airbus Defense and Space will initially focus on how ESA could use Starlab for astronaut missions and as a long-term research and commercial platform. The new agreement was signed during the European Space Summit in Seville, Spain.

The groups will also explore how ESA could use Starlab as one part of an “end-to-end” ecosystem that includes European cargo and crew capsules, similar to how SpaceX’s Dragon capsule provides astronaut and cargo transportation to and from the International Space Station. ESA announced earlier this week that it was establishing a new initiative aimed at soliciting a cargo capsule from European companies, which could later be developed to transport crew.

The International Space Station is currently slated to retire in 2030. Instead of replacing the station with another government-run and funded station, NASA decided to essentially seed the development of privately-owned stations that it could utilize as an anchor tenant. In December 2021, the space agency awarded over $400 million total to three private station plans, including Voyager Space’s Starlab.

This agreement with ESA is not entirely a surprise; Starlab is a joint venture between Airbus and Voyager, so it already has strong ties to Europe (Airbus is a European multinational). In a statement, the CEO of Airbus Defence and Space Mike Schoellhorn noted this long-standing relationship: “Our collaboration on this next-generation space station builds on a long and successful partnership between ESA and Airbus in developing and operating a wide range of crewed and uncrewed spacecraft,” he said.