With just one flight to go, NASA is winding down the 30-year-old Space Shuttle program. The European Space Agency, on the other hand, is all systems go, with a green light to start building its Intermediate eXperimental Vehicle (IXV).
IXV is quite different from the NASA shuttle, using a lifting body design instead of wings, with some flaps and thrusters to provide control. Another change is that it lifts off for space on the nose of a small Vega rocket, and splashes down in the Pacific Ocean instead of landing on a runway. In that way it more closely resembles America's initial forays into space, such as the splash-down orbiter designs of the Mercury Program.
The biggest difference however is that the IXV flies autonomously, with no fragile human crew to drive up the costs. At least, the IXV isn't planned to carry passengers into space just yet, taking a page from Russia's unmanned, autonomous cargo ships that help resupply the International Space Station.
Tuesday's agreement gives manufacturer Thales Alenia Space the go ahead to start building IXV, with a first flight scheduled in 2013.