Airbus, Safran Surprise ESA with Last-minute Ariane 6 Design

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TOULOUSE, France — A European Space Agency bid-evaluation team was expected to deliver its judgment by July 5 on two different designs for a next-generation Ariane 6 rocket — one it has been examining for about a year, and another it only discovered June 18.

The ESA Tender Evaluation Board’s recommendation will weigh heavily in a debate among a half-dozen European governments most concerned with launch vehicle production. Ministers from France, Germany and Italy are scheduled to meet July 8 in Geneva, at the invitation of the Swiss government, to solidify their own views of which way to go on Ariane 6.

An Ariane 6 depending mainly on identical solid-rocket boosters was the design these ministers decided in November 2012. It is this design that has been the object of multiple cost and production reviews at the 20-nation ESA since then.

But when it came time for industry to deliver its final assessments of that vehicle’s development cost, operating cost and in-service schedule, Europe’s two largest rocket-component builders, Airbus and Safran, provided a completely different alternative.

The Airbus-Safran rocket uses more liquid propulsion, can lift heavier payloads and comes in two models — one for smaller satellites of the type built for governments for science and Earth observation, and a larger version for the commercial telecommunications satellite market.

Airbus and Safran caught ESA by surprise with their proposal, which was announced in the presence of French President Francois Hollande at the same time as the two companies disclosed their intentions to form a joint venture to build the vehicle.

Jean-Yves Le Gall, president of the French space agency, CNES, said here June 30 that he is withholding judgment of the Airbus-Safran proposal until the ESA board comes up with an initial cost estimate.

Briefing reporters here during the Toulouse Space Show, Le Gall said ESA government ministers’ requirements for the new rocket have not changed since they were first announced in November 2012.

The main requirements are that Ariane 6 be much less costly to build and operate than the current heavy-lift Ariane 5 rocket, that European governments agree to use the vehicle to guarantee a minimum market for it, and that the current government-industry mix of Ariane oversight be reviewed with an eye toward simplicity.

The Airbus-Safran proposal, if carried to its logical end, would mean a single company building Ariane vehicles, with fewer subcontractors and much less government oversight. It would likely mean the end of the CNES launcher division as industry takes more control of Ariane design and operations.

Le Gall declined to speculate on the future of CNES’s launcher division and on whether CNES, as Airbus and Safran have proposed, would be willing to sell its 35 percent equity stake in the Arianespace launch consortium as Arianespace is merged into the new joint venture.

Airbus Group Chief Executive Thomas Enders defended the Airbus-Safran proposal, saying the new Ariane 6 design “can do this for less money than was previously foreseen.” In an address here June 30, Enders did not detail the cost of his company’s Ariane 6. The previous design was estimated at about 3.25 billion euros ($4.4 billion).

Similarly, CNES and ESA had set a goal of 70 million euros as the per-launch cost of Ariane 6, saying that while that was higher than today’s cost for a Space Exploration Technologies Corp.  Falcon 9 commercial flight, it was close enough. Whether the Airbus-Safran proposal can meet that recurring production cost target is unknown.

Enders said Europe’s launcher sector needed to be restructured, and fast. He said Ariane’s current position in the commercial launch market resembles Airbus’ commercial aircraft business at the time of the merger of competitors Boeing and McDonnell Douglas.

The move of the two U.S. aircraft builders forced Airbus to consolidate from a loose federation into a single corporation with streamlined operations.

Enders said it is not the merger of competitors that is now forcing Europe to change the way it conducts space business, but the emergence of extremely wealthy individuals, mainly coming from Silicon Valley, as financiers of space projects.

Compared with European companies’ cautiousness with shareholders’ capital, these Internet billionaires can lose a few hundred million dollars without much concern, Enders said. They are used to making decisions quickly. Enders did not mention SpaceX founder Elon Musk, but Musk was clearly on his mind.

“It’s an entirely different game,” Enders said of competing with companies whose wealthy founders can make big investments without having to go through multiple committees. “We had gotten used to thinking of launcher competition in terms of geographic region — China and India. Now we have the competition coming from America, from SpaceX.”

Enders said Airbus, now prime contractor for Ariane 5; and Safran, a rocket-motor builder, came up with their Ariane 6 design and joint-venture proposal “in record time.” To those who are unhappy with what these two companies have done — springing a new design on ESA governments at the last minute — he said: “If you don’t like change, you’ll like irrelevance even less.”

The debate about Ariane 6 has obscured the fact that ESA governments in December are also scheduled to decide whether ESA will remain a partner in the international space station beyond 2020. ESA officials have said they will not ask for a formal financial commitment, but rather an indication of the appetite — particularly of Germany, France and Italy, the three largest space station backers in Europe — for continuing station operations to 2024, as NASA has proposed.

Le Gall said the station’s future has been complicated by the tensions between Russia and both Europe and the United States concerning Ukraine. While the two nations continue to manage the orbital outpost together, Le Gall said it remains unclear whether the current stresses to the U.S.-Russian relationship will have an effect on station use after 2020.

 

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