French astronaut Thomas Pesquet will return to the International Space Station in spring 2021 onboard a spacecraft built by Elon Musk’s SpaceX, the European Space Agency said Tuesday.
The launch will take place at Cape Canaveral in the U.S. and follows up on SpaceX’s recent successful manned mission using the Crew Dragon spacecraft. That launch in May made it the first non-state actor to successfully send astronauts into space.
While the European Commission has talked up a policy of securing autonomous access to space the bloc does not have the capacity to launch astronauts itself. Europe’s Ariane series of rockets has not been used for manned missions and such a plan won’t be agreed until 2022 at the earliest when national ministers meet again to decide ESA’s funding program.
In the meantime, European astronauts will continue to require alternative rides to the ISS for their missions.
“I am thrilled to be the first European to fly on the new generation of U.S. crewed spacecraft,” said Pesquet, who has already spent 197 days at the ISS in 2016 and 2017.
Up until now, European astronauts have only been able to reach the ISS through the discontinued NASA Space Shuttle program or the Russian-built Soyuz.
ESA’s outgoing Director General Jan Wörner said that the deal illustrates the “international character of human spaceflight” even though it is using a commercial spacecraft built in the U.S.
The 2021 mission — dubbed Alpha — will mark the first time in a decade that a European astronaut has been launched into space from the U.S. Back in 2011, Italian Roberto Vittori travelled aboard NASA’s Space Shuttle Endeavour.