The 22 member nations of the European Space Agency, or ESA, have given their unanimous backing to the partial opening up of their cargo supply service to the International Space Station to the commercial sector, through a design competition.
At a meeting in the Spanish city of Seville, delegates backed a plan for the use of a robotic capsule, whose maiden voyage is scheduled to be in 2028, and whose design will be chosen through a competition, with the winner receiving some support and funding, but then having to sell back the service to the ESA.
The new way of operating would be similar to how NASA has begun to work in the United States, which opened the door for the involvement of Elon Musk's private SpaceX company.
"We will conceive (the capsule) in a way that it's not a dead end, meaning that it's open and can evolve in the future to a crew vehicle, if member states decide to do so," ESA Director-General Josef Aschbacher told reporters. "Eventually, it could also evolve (to go to) other destinations, possibly to the moon."
Last month, he told the European Parliament that "in the next decade you will be sure there will be first developments of houses, infrastructure (on the moon)".
A series of setbacks with the ESA's Vega-C lifting rocket, which endured a high-profile failure after its launch in December, losing two satellites in process, and delays to the Ariane 6 vehicle, which was first approved nine years ago, mean extra funding has been needed to put these issues right.
There is a feeling that future projects must avoid such problems, and the commercial input will lessen the burden on European taxpayers.
"All 22 member states of ESA have agreed that we have to change how we procure the launchers of the future," Aschbacher added.
Anna Christmann, a Green party politician from Germany who chaired the summit in Seville, said it was a significant change in ESA policy.
"Public money is needed to start these kinds of competitions, but then that attracts investors to put money in through private companies," she said. "When we compare space budgets, Europe is not so different from others on the public side. The bigger difference is on the private side of investment, and that's what we want to change."
Until now, Europe's role in space exploration has mainly been in terms of scientific and climate observation, with NASA or, until recently, Russia leading the way in terms of human exploration, but the Agence-France Presse news agency quoted an unnamed source as saying that the door was opening for more involvement in the world of crewed flights.
"If we want to carry out manned flights, this is the first step," said the source. "You have to be able to send a cargo ship to a station and come back. That is the first brick."