Nasa is increasingly outsourcing its launch capability to Elon Musk’s SpaceX and the company is scheduled to take astronauts back to the Moon as part of Nasa’s Artemis III mission, which could launch as early as 2025.
However, SpaceX has suffered a number of mishaps in recent months, with its giant Starship spacecraft exploding twice during test-flights, leading to fears the Artemis III mission may need to be pushed back.
Mr Aschbacher said companies across Europe would be invited to develop the new rocket system for the ESA which is likely to include several companies, such as Skyrora, who are already developing launchers in Britain.
“I see the future of launches in Europe being very much more diverse,” he added. “The UK already has a few launchers that are ready to fly or getting ready to fly.
“Yes, it’s a huge challenge, some people may say it’s impossible to catch up. It will take time but this is exactly the way Falcon 9 developed, and eventually Starship, and I think we can learn a lot. I’m pretty hopeful that we can catch up in the launcher sector.”
The ESA said it was vital to regain consistent access to space but as well as delays with the Ariane 6 rocket, Europe’s Vega C rocket has been grounded since last December, and European astronauts can no longer fly on the Russian Soyuz after relations broke down with Roscosmos over the Ukraine War.
It has left the ESA relying entirely on SpaceX, although Mr Ashbacher said there was now “light at the end of the tunnel” for Ariane 6. Final tests of the rocket’s Vulcain engines are due to take place this week and, if successful, a date for its maiden test flight will be announced soon after.