A Ukrainian astronaut on the ISS could be a reality. What will Ukraine gain after joining the European Space Agency?

·10 min read

The question addressed here revolves around what Ukraine can gain by joining the ESA, whether the organisation needs Ukraine, and how long the joining process might take.

"An act of charity" from Russians in the space industry has been accepted. The invaders have promised to discontinue their participation in the International Space Station (ISS) project after 2024.

And whilst this process goes on, Ukraine seems to have gained a chance to prepare its own astronauts and send them to the ISS. On April 7 2022, during the 37th Space Symposium in the American Colorado Springs, Director General of the European Space Agency Josef Aschbacher mentioned that the agency had received an application for membership from the Ukrainian government.

However, being able to send its own astronauts to the ISS is not the only benefit of ESA membership for Ukraine.

Thus, the question must be asked: what can Ukraine derive from joining the ESA and does the organisation actually need Ukraine?

What does the European Space Agency stand for?

Only a limited number of countries can afford to spend billions on nontrivial projects such as space exploration efforts. During the hottest period of the space race between the USSR and the US – when the Soviets were the first to send a person into space and the Americans were the first to send a person to the Moon – ten European countries established the European Space Agency in 1975. Their aim was not to compete with the Cold War participants, but to undertake joint satellite launches and research activities; it is expensive for separate countries to achieve such goals on their own. Meanwhile, the concentration of scientists from all the countries brought about new and gigantic discoveries.


During the more than 47 years of its existence, the number of ESA member countries has reached 22. The costs of supporting the agency’s activities have also reached astronomical numbers: the organisation’s 2022 budget exceeded EUR 7.2 billion. Higher costs can only be afforded by the American organisation NASA (USD 24 billion) and the Chinese National Space Administration (USD 8.9 billion in 2020).

It is important to note that the ESA participates in the development and use of the International Space Station, which was launched in 1998. In particular, the agency created and sent the module of the scientific laboratory Columbus and the panoramic module Cupola to the ISS.

Per NASA’s orders, the agency’s contractors have created other ISS modules – Harmony (a utility hub and an internal connecting port and passageway) and Tranquillity (a module for crew members and life support systems). According to the current assessments, the price tag for designing, building, and servicing the station is approaching EUR 100 billion, with the ESA’s share of this standing at EUR 8 billion.


Due to the ESA's financial and technological participation in the designing and servicing of the ISS, 30 European astronauts have already visited the orbital station; currently, the ISS houses an Italian astronaut, Samantha Cristoforetti. Moreover, the ESA prepares space explorers at the European Astronaut Centre near Cologne, Germany.

Other than the ISS, the ESA has carried out a range of space projects. The agency participated in the creation of the James Webb and Hubble telescopes, whilst ESA experts have worked on the Cassini–Huygens – an automated interplanetary station that studies Saturn, its circles and satellites. And together with NASA, the ESA has developed the Rosetta project – an automatic interplanetary station investigating the Churyumov–Gerasimenko comet.

The agency exploits various rockets, with the major examples being Ariane 5, Soyuz-2 and Vega, the latter of which has a Ukrainian RD-843 engine.


Why now is the time to join the ESA

In the words of Nataliia Borotkanych, Space Projects Coordinator at the Noosphere group, "Ukraine has no single astronaut in space. This is a painful question, as an astronaut is a scientific rock star, i.e., a person who could spread science popularity. If Ukraine becomes an ESA member, our country can access the ISS's European segment. But this is the slightest advantage we’ll gain if we achieve ESA membership. And this doesn’t prohibit Ukraine from developing its own space programme if we have sufficient resources for that".

Launched in 2014 by Ukrainian tech entrepreneur Max Polyakov, Noosphere Ventures engages in the development of space technologies. Soon after the space symposium, Borotkanych prepared a report on the opportunities for cooperation between Ukraine and the ESA in case Ukraine joins the organisation.

So why is this topic being raised during the war? There are two reasons. First, joining the ESA, just like joining the EU, is a lengthy process with many stages extending over years. But the full-scale Russian invasion has significantly sped up the process of Ukraine becoming a member of the EU. This sets a precedent, and the same can be expected in terms of the process of Ukraine joining the ESA.

Second, Ukraine needs to finally, and firmly, declare its direction of integration into the European space sector. The reality is that space projects are costly, and often even NASA cannot handle them alone.

"For instance, despite being American, the Artemis Program to send humans to the Moon engages all countries that have technologies necessary for project implementation. I.e., the period of the space race, when two countries competed in space research, is far behind", Nataliia Borotkanych explains.

In other words, since Ukraine has chosen the EU, we must also integrate into the European space industry.


Benefits for the ESA and Ukraine

An agreement regarding cooperation between Ukraine and the ESA has been effective since 2008; however, Borotkanych considers the above-mentioned cooperation to be of a pinpoint nature. Due to this, both sides lose opportunities for expected benefits from using everyone’s capabilities.

In her report "Ukrainian Space Segment and European Space Agency Cooperation Opportunities", the expert refers to the following list of elements which Ukraine can contribute to the ESA:

  • Ukraine will be one of the top-10 ESA countries in terms of its investments in space activities;

  • The ESA will have access to the modern, applicable and inexpensive Ukrainian aerospace R&D centres/facilities;

  • The ESA will gain access to an experienced but cost-effective workforce (cost in the EU is seven times higher per month);

  • Simple iteration with Ukrainian contractors;

  • Ukraine can become a contractor for such important components as electric thrusters and chemical engines, as well as satellite adapters;

  • The ESA will gain access to air launch IP and technologies for different inclination orbits;

  • Access to the VAS company and its expertise in submeter images processing for military needs;

  • The ESA will gain access to experienced staff who are already engaged in international space projects.

In addition, the ESA will gain a chance to speed up its already-running projects: Exomars, which aims to find evidence of life on Mars, and Copernicus, which aims to study the environment.

In return, Ukraine, following Borotkanych’s forecast, can obtain a significant boost in the local space industry, as happened with Poland. Before joining the agency in 2012, the Polish space industry was comprised of just several scientific institutes.

For the Polish space industry, joining the ESA had a significant impact. In particular:

  • Polish companies gained access to the European market, where they can test the quality of their developments;

  • The ESA became a mentor to Poland, and so the country now produces scientific nano-satellites and larger remote sensing satellites (MikroGlob) as well as communications satellites (EXATEL);

  • Polish students obtained a chance to join European space education programmes;

  • Polish space industry commercialisation has led to the emergence of 66 new private companies;

  • Polish companies have obtained access to ESA tenders;

  • Poland can now use the European Vega launcher to send its first satellite into orbit.


Experts: advantages and disadvantages of joining

Experts have controversial positions regarding this matter. They believe that joining the ESA will take many years.

A former Head of the Ukrainian State Space Agency, Volodymyr Usov, confirms that, after joining the ESA, Ukrainian private and state space companies will have a chance to participate in the agency’s programmes. They will receive financial resources from the Ukrainian budget, but will be co-financed by other countries within the scope of the large international projects.

In the words of Usov, "Implementing space projects with own financing is almost impossible. Only China and the US can accomplish this on their own. For Ukraine, this will open the doors to serious projects that we couldn’t have accomplished on our own".

According to him, negotiations on Ukraine's membership of the ESA have been going on for a long time. This process can be accelerated now, but not radically. The ESA is not a political organisation, and so interacting with it is more complicated than Ukraine's negotiations with EU member states.

At the same time, Ukraine is negotiating with ESA partner countries to join the European Cooperating State (ECS) programme, which is designed to prepare countries for joining the agency and provides an opportunity to participate in joint projects with the ESA. For this to become a reality, it is necessary to secure the support of all valid member countries of the agency. Usov believes that Ukraine can join the ECS within a year.

At the same time, Andriy Kolesnyk, a former adviser to the head of the State Space Agency, believes that the ESA is now searching for a different development path.

Indeed, the expert explains that "We can say, in the words of ESA officials, that Europe lost the space race. It is a backward party in this process. The form the agency has today, its structure needs changes, also considering the general trend of commercialisation of space activities".

Whilst searching for a future development path, ESA founding countries may take steps to reorganise or change the agency's role in a united Europe. Therefore, in Kolesnyk's opinion, joining the ESA is no longer the path that will give Ukraine many advantages.

He suggests paying attention to Canada's experience. This country is not located in Europe but constantly cooperates with Europeans as an ESA associate member.

In the words of the expert, "That is, it does not spend funds to support the ESA headquarters, the agency's space centres, but has the right to participate in the projects and fund specific projects".

According to him, the main advantage of joining the ESA is the complete absence of a corruption component during the implementation of European space contracts by Ukrainian enterprises.

"These contracts will go through ESA. This means that the corruption component is excluded by 100%. If we are associated members, we will pay for the contracts to our companies ourselves, and overpricing issues may arise then", explains Kolesnyk.

This is quite a strong argument for Ukraine's entry into the ESA, given the multimillion-dollar corruption embezzlement in Ukraine's failed space projects.


Instead of a conclusion

Ukraine's entry into the ESA opens up good prospects for the domestic aerospace industry. But will we have the financial and technological resources to create added value in European space projects after a full-scale war with Russia?

No one knows the answer to this question yet. At the same time, the procedure for Ukraine's entry into the ESA does not promise to be quick.

"This is a big decision and not something that can be done very quickly," warns ESA head Josef Aschbacher. According to him, joining the agency is a years-long process that nations must go through to become full members.

Vsevolod Nekrasov