SpaceX Looms Large as ESA Readies Ariane 6 Contract

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PARIS—The head of the European Space Agency’s launcher directorate on July 7 issued a surprising endorsement of the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket during a French parliamentary hearing that was ostensibly about the status of Europe’s next-generation Ariane 6 vehicle.

Gaele Winters, who is expected to ask ESA’s check-writing body on July 16 to approve a nearly $3 billion contract with Airbus Safran Launchers to develop Ariane 6, said the June 28 Falcon 9 failure in no way changes ESA’s assessment of SpaceX.

“We have seen the outstanding success of Falcon 9,” Winters said. “Despite the issue of about a week ago, it is a fantastic track record for this launcher.”

Winters was addressing the French Parliamentary Office for the Evaluation of Scientific and Technological Choices, which regularly reviews Europe’s and France’s space policy.

But as has been the case with most French government space policy meetings in recent years, this one devoted a good deal of time to SpaceX – its status and its progress toward developing a partially reusable Falcon 9.

European launch service provider Arianespace and SpaceX have the global commercial launch market about to themselves for the moment, pending the return of Russia’s Proton rocket to commercially acceptable status following its failures.

Arianespace Chief Executive Stephane Israel told the hearing that the SpaceX failure is a reminder that humility ought to be the approach taken by all launch providers.

From his vantage point as the head of SpaceX’s principal commercial-market competitor, Israel said SpaceX’s failure adds to the list of challenges for the Hawthorne, California-based company.

“They will need to meet the challenge of the return to flight – and of course they will succeed in this – at the same time as they plan a very aggressive increase in launch cadence, boost the performance of their engines, prepare the introduction of a new launcher [the Falcon Heavy] and move toward the reuse of part of their system.

“We’ll see how they untie this knot of challenges,” Israel said.

Israel and other European space industry officials in recent months have expressed frustration that, even as they revamp their industrial organization for Ariane 6, some European government officials are more interested in talking about SpaceX’s rocket-reuse effort and asking why Europe isn’t doing likewise.

That frustration was in evidence July 7 as Israel and other witnesses at the hearing fielded parliamentary questions regarding the choice of the expendable Ariane 6.

Michel de Rosen, chief executive of satellite fleet operator Eutelsat of Paris, urged lawmakers to set aside thoughts of a better launch vehicle until the Ariane 6 is in operation starting in 2020.

“We need a utility vehicle at competitive prices, not a sports car or a luxury car,” de Rosen said. “Any improvements you want to make to Ariane 6 are fine, so long as the improvements don’t lead to program delays. That would be making the better the enemy of the good.”

De Rosen said Eutelsat, which has offered to fly a satellite on the inaugural Ariane 6 launch, has used the Ariane rocket to launch most of its current fleet of 34 telecommunications satellites in geostationary orbit. He admitted that Eutelsat has shown a bias toward Ariane out of “loyalty to Europe,” but that as a publicly traded company it cannot abandon value-for-money priorities.

“Our shareholders would not understand it if, on the pretext of buying European, we pay more for launches than our competitors – especially when our two principal competitors, based in Luxembourg, pay three times less in taxes than we do.” He was referring to SES and Intelsat.

Airbus Safran Launchers, the joint-venture company that will design and build Ariane 6, is in final negotiations with ESA on the terms of a contract expected to be valued at around 2.6 billion euros ($2.9 billion) and to be presented on July 16 to ESA’s Industrial Policy Committee for approval.

Winters said the July 16 date is still holding but that several issues remain to be resolved, notably whether Ariane 6 will be integrated vertically, as all previous Ariane vehicles, or horizontally. Horizontal integration would offer long-term cost savings but raise short-term issues as the Ariane 6 contracting team adapts to the new way of assembling a rocket.

The fundamental objectives of Ariane 6, which was approved by ESA governments in December in direct response to SpaceX’s low-priced Falcon 9, are to cut Ariane 5 prices by 50 percent and to do away with the annual 100 million in subsidies now given by ESA to Evry, France-based Arianespace for the Ariane 5.

Alain Charmeau, chief executive of Airbus Safran Launchers, said the two sides are “very close to convergence” on the contract terms and conditions. Airbus has said previously that in addition to ESA’s investment, Airbus Safran Launchers will invest 400 million euros of its own into Ariane 6 development.

Charmeau said his company’s planned purchase of the 35 percent of Arianespace now held by the French space agency, CNES, is likely to occur “toward the end of the year.”

The design-to-cost approach for Ariane 6 is forcing Europe’s rocket industrial base to make deep cuts to its cost structure. Depending on how much business Ariane 6 can capture once it is operational, the new vehicle may force a sharp downsizing among the participating companies – a fact rarely voiced in France.

It was left to Hans Steininger, chief executive of MT Aerospace of Augsburg, Germany – a major Ariane component builder – to say so directly to the French lawmakers.

“Streamlining by companies like mine is being done now and will continue over the years,” Steininger said. “It will be a painful process. In the long term, we’re talking of a reduced work force.”