The idea behind a winged, reusable, manned European spaceplane began around 1975 with a French proposal for a smaller version of the US Space Shuttle. This idea eventually became known as Hermes, named for the Greek god of boundaries, travelers, and invention. The original plan called for a capability of transporting six astronauts and 4,500 kg of cargo into low Earth orbit.
In the wake of the Challenger explosion, it was deemed necessary to add ejection seats in order to bolster crew safety. This, in turn, caused a reduction in capabilities, so that Hermes would now carry a crew of three and 3,000 kg into orbit. The loaded launch mass of Hermes was 21,000 kg, right at the limit of the Ariane 5 launch vehicle. The spaceplane had a Resource Module for auxiliary systems that would be jettisoned on each flight, just before reentry. A new Resource Module would then be fitted to the reusable spacecraft for the next mission.
But by the early 1990s, Europe and Russia had both signed on to the International Space Station (ISS) project, effectively erasing the need for a manned European spaceplane. International passengers would be able to ride to ISS on either the Russian Soyuz or the American Shuttle. Accordingly, the project essentially fizzled out by the end of 1992 and was officially canceled in 1993. And yet, in the East, there was still hope.4
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