Plenty of European astronauts and hardware have gone up to the space station or to other orbits around Earth, but now the European Space Agency (ESA) is thinking of ways to get them back down on their own.

A Vega rocket on the drawing boards is slated to carry ESA's Intermediate eXperimental Vehicle (IXV) into space in 2012. The stubby white-and-black spacecraft is designed to use two rear flaps in a paddling motion to steer itself during atmospheric reentry.

Such a demonstration craft could perhaps pave the way for Europe to return its astronauts to Earth without relying on the U.S. or Russian space programs.

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The U.S. itself faces a four-year gap in manned spaceflight capability after the space shuttle retires in 2010, and will have to rely on the Russian Soyuz spacecraft.

"With ATV [Automated Transfer Vehicle] and Columbus, the European space laboratory, we believe Europe has now become one of the major players in manned space exploration," said John Ellwood, ATV mission manager.

He added that the European Union's Council of Ministers would meet in November to set space policy for the next several years.

Europe's ATV currently serves as an unmanned space delivery vehicle, with the first, named Jules Verne, successfully completing its mission and undergoing a fiery death in the Earth's atmosphere.

But now ESA wants to push forward with developing an ATV variant that could undergo re-entry and safely return cargo or astronauts.

"ESA does not plan to develop a reusable re-entry system on the basis of the ATV, but rather an expendable re-entry vehicle," said Marco Caporicci, head of transport and re-entry systems for the ESA Human Spaceflight Directorate.

The Advanced Re-entry Vehicle (ARV) would use Europe's Ariane 5 rocket, which is not reusable.

An expendable service module would boost the ARV into orbit and guide the re-entry module to reenter Earth's atmosphere.

ESA has not tried to develop a reusable launch system or service module because of the low number of European spaceflights, Caporicci said. But the re-entry capsule would conceptually resemble NASA's Apollo or upcoming Orion capsules, with some changes.

"We believe that the shape selected, with a cone angle of 20 degrees, would allow more internal volume than for the classical Apollo shape," Caporicci told SPACE.com.

Caporicci cautioned that "ARV does not play a role in closing the gap between shuttle and Orion," and that the IXV and ARV programs would each follow their own separate development tracks.

However, space enthusiasts can cheer the notion that Europe may someday join the United States, Russia and China in launching astronauts and returning them safely to Earth.

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