European Spacecraft Takes Off The European Space Agency has launched a massive new cargo ship, which is headed for the International Space Station. The robotic ship can carry more than seven tons of fuel, food and other supplies up to the station.
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European Spacecraft Takes Off

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European Spacecraft Takes Off

European Spacecraft Takes Off

European Spacecraft Takes Off

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The European Space Agency has launched a massive new cargo ship, which is headed for the International Space Station. The robotic ship can carry more than seven tons of fuel, food and other supplies up to the station.

JACKI LYDEN, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Jacki Lyden.

Unidentified Man: (French spoken)

LYDEN: It blasted off overnight from a launch pad in South America. A giant unmanned rocket built by the European Space Agency. It delivered into orbit a spacecraft that will dock with and take supplies to the International Space Station next month. It's the biggest and most complex spacecraft every built by the Europeans. Until now only Russian and American spaceships have docked there.

NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce has more.

NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE: Europe's new spaceship is named after Jules Verne, the French author who made eerily accurate predictions about space travel way back in 1865. He'd probably get a kick out of his namesake. It's a huge spacecraft, the size of those red double-decker buses you see driving around London.

Mr. ALAN THIRKETTLE (Spokesman, European Space Agency): And although I'm a Briton it's very difficult for Brits to get excited. We're very excited and very proud and really looking forward to what we think is going to be a really magnificent mission and one that will service the station very well indeed.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Alan Thirkettle works for the European Space Agency. He says it took nearly 12 years and 1.3 billion Euros to create this new vehicle.

Mr. THIRKETTLE: It's a major development for Europe. It contains a number of new technologies. It's an extremely exciting vehicle for us.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Jules Verne can drive itself. There's no astronaut onboard and it can't carry people up. Instead, it's stuffed with tons of cargo, all kinds of things - fuel, food, oxygen, science equipment, plus a space travel book written by Jules Verne, of course.

The ship's cargo capacity is about three times greater than Progress. That's the Russian unmanned vehicle that's been taking supplies to the station for years. John Elwood is the mission manager for Jules Verne.

Mr. JOHN ELWOOD (Mission Manager, Jules Verne): Not only are we the largest cargo carrier to the space station but we're also the first vehicle, which would completely automatically using optical sensors dock with the space station.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: He says the ship gets guided in by these sensors, not the station's astronauts.

Mr. ELWOOD: All they can do is actually press a red button and send us away if they feel that we're being unsafe.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Obviously no one wants to see the ship crash into the station. NASA's space shuttle and Russia's manned and unmanned capsules regularly visit the orbiting outpost. European astronauts have hitched rides on them, but so far Europe's spacecraft have been probes that go far off into the solar system.

Bob Chesson is head of the European Space Agency's Human Spaceflight program.

Mr. BOB CHESSON (Manager, ESA's Human Spaceflight and Exploration Operations): There is a big jump between operating an unmanned spacecraft in deep space and then actually operating a spacecraft in a manned environment. And it's a big challenge for us, and I think we're up to it.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: He says the Jules Verne will first spend weeks doing various maneuvers in space to prove it's working as planned. Once it docks to the station it will stay attached for months and use its thrusters to help keep the station in the right orbit. Then after astronauts unload all the cargo and fill it with trash, Jules Verne will end its life by burning up over the Pacific Ocean.

Europe is planning to build and launch several more space trucks just like it. This will help keep the station supplied after NASA retires the shuttle in 2010. And Alan Thirkettle says this experience could one day help Europe create its own ships to carry people.

Mr. THIRKETTLE: The navigation activities, the rendezvous activities are building blocks towards the kind of technologies that are necessary for human transportation.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: He says that's something Europe is definitely thinking about.

Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News.

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