Europe is preparing plans to join the United States in building a manned spaceship that would take men and women to the Moon and beyond. The project could see a European astronaut launched into deep space before the end of the decade.
The proposal to join in construction of the four-person US Orion spaceship will be debated at a meeting of ministers of the European Space Agency's 20 member states in Italy this week. If passed, it would mean that for the first time Europe would be involved in building and launching manned space vehicles.
"Europeans will have the power to put men and women into space," said Jean-Jacques Dordain, director general of the European Space Agency. "That would be a fantastic development for us."
Among the European candidates who might fly on the new spaceship, which should be ready for flight by 2017, would be British astronaut Tim Peake. A qualified Army helicopter pilot, Peake was selected three years ago to be one of six new European astronauts and has been training in Germany since then.
At the time of his selection, it was assumed Peake's best chance of space flight would be a mission to the International Space Station. Now he and his five colleagues have a chance of a space flight thanks to the US request for Europe to join in its Orion programme.
The Orion capsule - known officially as the Multiple Purpose Crew Vehicle - is designed to carry astronauts on missions of up to six months and could take men and women to the Moon, or an asteroid or possibly even Mars.
The plan for Europe to join the US in building Orion spaceships stems from Nasa's decision to privatise crew and cargo flights to the space station.
Dordain, who has led the European Space Agency since 2003, believes that no single nation can now afford to carry out manned space exploration on its own. The future lies with co-operation like that proposed between the US and Europe.
"There is not a single space power left in the world that thinks they can afford to send men and women to explore the Moon or Mars on their own national budget," he said. "This is something that will have to be done by international co-operation.
"Even the Chinese, who have so far done it on their own, are looking for partners. We are in discussions with them. Some of our astronauts are learning Chinese and there are Chinese astronauts training at our centre in Germany."