Airbus Upbraided for Shopping SpaceX

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PARIS — A French senator publicly upbraided Airbus Defence and Space Dec. 9 for even thinking about launching a telecommunications satellite on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket two years from now, saying the company’s move was “scandalous, unacceptable.”

The senator, Alain Gournac, who is a veteran member of the French Parliamentary Space Group, said he had written French Economy and Industry Minister Emmanuel Macron to protest Airbus’ negotiations with Hawthorne, California-based Space Exploration Technologies Corp. for a late 2016 launch instead of contracting for a launch on a European Ariane 5 rocket.

“The negotiations are all the more unacceptable given that, at the insistence of France, Europe has decided to adopt a policy of ‘European preference’ for its government launches,” Gournac said. “This is called playing against your team, and it smacks of a provocation. It’s an incredible situation that might lead customers to think we no longer have faith in Ariane 5 — and tomorrow, Ariane 6.”

The satellite in question is part of the European Data Relay Service, EDRS, which is developing two nodes in geostationary orbit, both on satellites with conventional telecommunications payloads as well, to use lasers to communicate with low-orbiting observation satellites to speed data return.

Artist concept of the European Data Relay System.
Artist concept of the European Data Relay System.

EDRS is being managed as a public-private partnership between the 20-nation European Space Agency and Airbus Defence and Space, with Airbus agreeing to manage the service as a profit-making enterprise using the European Union as an anchor customer.

The use of lasers as a data relay is a never-before-tried business. Airbus has invested 130 million euros ($163 million) into the project’s satellite infrastructure, and will be responsible for generating a return on that investment.

Among Airbus’ responsibilities under the program is finding a launch vehicle.

Word that the company was talking with SpaceX — which at this point might be credited with single-handedly causing ESA to invest 4 billion euros into a new Ariane 6 vehicle — caused an immediate reaction at the Arianespace launch consortium.

Arianespace Chief Executive Stephane Israel said Arianespace had plenty of room in 2016 in the Ariane 5 ECA’s lower berth, reserved for smaller satellites, and would be happy to launch EDRS-C.

Behind the scenes, Arianespace worked its contacts in the French government and at ESA.
On Dec. 12, Airbus issued a statement saying that it had not signed a contract with SpaceX for EDRS-C, and would soon enter negotiations with ESA and with Arianespace for the launch.