Could it be possible that next important step on the way for establishing constant presence men in space will be made by European Space Agency on Moon ?
Recently we have increasing difference between visions of space exploration between present partners - ESA, NASA, Roscosmos, JAXA and CSA. JAXA and CSA are still interesting in cooperation in International Space Station Program; with own space programs focused on research and without ambitions for manned missions already signed agreements with NASA for extending cooperation under ISS program. Roscosmos is still counting on continuing cooperation with present partners until 2028, when it is planned to start operating new Russian space station based on ISS modules (Zvezda, Poinsk and Nauka). Roscosmos is still considering own Moon program but due the financial crisis in Russia these plans were recently postponed. At the moment it is hard to predict if Russia economy will manage to deal with such expensive program like manned Moon mission. NASA is consequently developing new SLS rocket and investing in new technologies like space planes (with Dream Chaser as one of the winners CRS 2 contract) and is involved strongly in Mars mission program. It seems to be more interesting for NASA than new space station, which costs of operating are extremely high and noticeable part of experiments could be easily done by automated spacecraft or crewed space plane. European Space Agency until now was considering different options after decommissioning ISS. There was gossip about starting cooperation with CNSA and cooperation in Tiangong space station project; Roscosmos was inviting ESA to cooperate under their OPSEK space station but ESA avoided any declarations. ESA with started InSight Mars program seemed to be much more interested in deep space missions and Mars exploration than starting new space station program.
Everything changed when Johann-Dietrich Woerner became chief of ESA on July 2015. After six months he announced on 15 January 2016 about starting new project devoted to establishing manned base on the Moon. Program was named "Moon Village" and is based on creating complex of buildings on Moon surface with significant usage of material possessed from Moon surface. Project is considered as successor of ISS - Johann-Dietrich Woerner stated this on 15 January 2016:
"I looked into the requirements I see for a project after ISS. As of today, I see the moon village as the ideal successor of the International Space Station for (space) exploration,"
Woerner stated also that project is open for every partnership and for the beginning it is not planned to be extremely expensive – moon lander could be good start:
"We don't need a big amount of funding at the beginning...we can start with a small landing mission, which many countries are already planning,"
This idea should be considered as interesting partnership for present partners working together under ISS project. Firstly it is not simple swapping ISS with more recent model. It is new quality in space exploration. Secondly, creating conventional space station 30 years after beginning of ISS is not shocking and ultimately ambitious venture. Investing great money to comparable or even identical project is not mostly necessary. Automated spacecrafts with robotic research modules are able to perform great number of science experiments without extremely expensive space station. Same robots could be easily send to the Moon and prepare landing and small base for future manned mission. ESA presented video with artistic vision of such moon base on 22 March 2016. Buildings presented on the movie are inflated and covered with soil by robots - everything was showed as done automatically. It should not be considered as science fiction; if we take under consideration that at the moment most of the maneuvers and different action is done automatically by Progress spacecrafts and most recent project of manned vehicle, Blue Shepard, will be fully autonomous during whole mission duration, probably we could treat moon base idea as even more probable than manned Mars mission. Biggest problem - radiation, solar wind and asteroids which could be deadly threat for any long term base on the Moon, could be solved in quite simple way. According to Johann-Dietrich Woerner the key is placing base near the southern pole where shadow of the Moon would protect against part of radiation and asteroids.
ESA project is based on assumption, that at least as many partners like during ISS would participate - Moon Village could be research center, space touristic center or even mining facility. Advantage of the project is fact that it could be built with partial usage of Moon soil, basing on inflated objects - without propulsion, navigation systems, docking ports or special shields against asteroids. That is why cost could be comparable to ISS, but for this money humanity would get something much better than space station.