During the 1990s, as the International Space Station program was taking place, it was collectively recognised by the 15 participating nations that, upon completion, the International Space Station (ISS), a crewed space station in Low Earth orbit (LEO), would require regular resupply missions in order to meet the needs of the onboard crew as well as to deliver apparatus to support the various scientific tests that would be performed on board. In October 1995, it was agreed that, amongst the various contributions to the ISS program that Europe would assume responsibility for under the vestiges of the European Space Agency (ESA), would be the Automated Transfer Vehicle, or ATV; this logistics-orientated spacecraft would perform the identified resupply missions to ISS.
On 9 December 1998, the ESA awarded a $470 million contract to proceed with development work on the ATV to French aerospace company Aérospatiale. While Aérospatiale served as the principal contractor for the ATV, it was joined by multiple major subcontractors, including Italian manufacturer Alenia Spazio, Franco-British firm Matra Marconi Space and German aerospace company DaimlerChrysler Aerospace (DASA); some components were also provided by Russian firm S. P. Korolev Rocket and Space Corporation Energia. Prior to 2000, DASA was to serve as the prime contractor for production, after which the role would be gradually transferred to Aérospatiale. At the point at which the contract had been awarded, it was envisioned that the first flight of the ATV would be conducted during September 2003.
The launch of the first ATV, which had been named Jules Verne, was subject to multiple delays, which were partially generated by problems encountered with the Ariane 5 heavy-lift launch vehicle, as well as a substantial software re-write. By May 2003, it was set to be launched sometime during late 2004. By mid 2004, it had been announced that launch of the first ATV, which was by then undergoing electrical testing following the completion of integration work, had been postponed due to technical issues, and was reportedly scheduled to be launched during late 2005, following the issuing of a renegotiated $1.1 billion contract between the ESA and the prime contractor. In March 2005, another launch delay was declared, due to the need for greater development of the failure-mode software along with launch-window timing changes, which put the planned ATV launch back from late 2005 to an undetermined date during 2006. In October 2005, it was clarified that the new launch date for the first ATV would be during 2007.
In September 2006, it was announced that the final stage of testing on the Ariane 5's customised ATV stage was within its final phase. In December 2006, it was announced that the first ATV had completed its vacuum test, marking the successful completion of the key tests and enabling a final launch date to be set. In April 2007, the ATV was subject to four-month long qualification process in response to operational concerns, including safety queries originating from the U.S., and to examine the vehicle's potential commercialisation.
Following multiple restructuring and ownership changes, the prime contractor for the ATV became Airbus Defence and Space, whom lead a consortium of many sub-contractors. While development work had been started in Les Mureaux, France, much of the activity relocated to Bremen, Germany, as the project moved from its development to the production stage, in which work on the four initial units started. In order to facilitate the relationship between the contractor and the ESA, an integrated ESA team at the Les Mureaux site was established and maintained for the duration of the development.
Airbus Defence and Space builds the ATVs in its facility in Bremen. In 2004, contracts and accords were signed for four additional ATVs, which were envisioned to be launched at a rate of around one every two years, bringing the total order, including the first, Jules-Verne, to five vehicles. According to the German Aerospace Center (DLR), the development cost of the ATV was approximately €1.35 billion. Reportedly, each ATV spacecraft was costed at roughly US$300 million, which did not include launch costs. In March 2005, RSC Energia signed a €40 million contract with one of the main subcontractors of Airbus Defence and Space, the Italian company Alenia Spazio (now Thales Alenia Space), to supply the Russian Docking System, refuelling system, and Russian Equipment Control System. Within the Airbus Defence and Space led project, Thales Alenia Space is responsible for the pressurized cargo carrier section of the ATV and manufactures these at the firm's facility in Turin, Italy.
On 31 July 2007, the first ATV, Jules Verne, arrived at the ESA spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana, after a nearly two week journey from Rotterdam harbour. On 9 March 2008, Jules Verne was launched on top of an Ariane 5 rocket from Kourou. On 3 April 2008, Jules Verne succeeded in automatically docking with the ISS, proving the capabilities of the ESA's first fully automated, expendable cargo resupply spacecraft. The arrival of the ATV came at a time at which there were public concerns over the logistical practicality of supplying the ISS.
In addition to its use by ESA and Russia, the ATV was at one point under consider to perform services for NASA as part of the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program to replace the retiring Space Shuttle in its orbital cargo carrying capacity. Under the proposal, which had been issued by a joint venture between EADS and Boeing, the ATV would be launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida, using a Delta IV rocket. One speculated use for NASA's ATV was to achieve the de-orbiting of the ISS once the space station had reached the end of its service life, being the only vehicle capable of doing so at that time after the Shuttle's retirement. Ultimately, the proposal was not awarded with a corresponding contract.