French Minister: Europe’s Launch Industry at ‘Turning Point’

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SASSENAGE, France — The French research minister said Oct. 26 that Europe’s launch vehicle sector is “at a turning point” and must begin investment in a next-generation rocket immediately given the changing competitive landscape.

Addressing an issue that continues to divide France and Germany less than four weeks before a meeting of European governments to decide a multiyear space budget and program direction, Genevieve Fioraso said she is confident that an agreement reconciling German and French concerns will be struck so that preliminary work on an Ariane 6 vehicle will begin in early 2013.

Fioraso said Europe’s pivot toward Ariane 6 could be accomplished without scrapping the results of a four-year program to improve the current Ariane 5 rocket with a more powerful, and reignitable, upper stage.

The Ariane 5 Midlife Evolution program, originally approved by European governments in 2008, still needs about 1.4 billion euros ($1.8 billion) to be completed and made ready for flight. It has been defended tooth and nail by the German government, which wants to preserve its industrial base and is concerned that Ariane 6 is poorly defined and may not afford that protection.

Backing the German position has been Astrium Space Transportation, the Ariane 5 prime contractor, whose industrial base in France and Germany will feel the effects of any strategic move on launchers. Astrium officials have said the Ariane 6 vehicle’s design is insufficiently thought out to start work on it, and that the Ariane 5 Midlife Evolution program would improve Ariane 5’s competitiveness.

Addressing a meeting to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Air Liquide’s industrial gas plant here, which builds Ariane 5 reservoirs, Fioraso conceded that the French and German positions had not yet merged. She said the French position is that the move to Ariane 6 could be made without threatening jobs at Ariane industrial manufacturers, and without risking the loss of Europe’s launcher expertise.

A French government official said that the compromise being stitched together would not necessarily lead to an Ariane 5 Midlife Evolution vehicle ever being produced for flight.

France’s principal partners in European space development — Germany, Italy and Britain among them — have said preparations for the Nov. 20-21 meeting in Naples, Italy, of European Space Agency (ESA) governments have been stalled awaiting a French-German accord on Ariane’s future.

Among the programs awaiting resolution is Europe’s contribution to the international space station. Here too France and Germany remain at odds.

Germany backs a NASA proposal to have Europe build the propulsion module for NASA’s Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle.

France has countered that the Orion work, which would offset Europe’s space station operating-cost payment obligations to NASA, is a dead-end investment.

France has proposed spending the same amount of money that Europe owes in space station operations to NASA on technologies that could rid low Earth orbit of debris and perform other tasks.

Current estimates are that to maintain its share of station operations to 2020, as the station partners have agreed they want, Europe will owe NASA around $450 million in the three years starting in 2017.

ESA has been paying these charges up to now by sending Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) cargo carriers to the station every year or so. But ESA has decided to stop ATV production after the fifth vehicle, to be launched in 2014.

NASA has told European officials that it needs to know, by early 2013, whether ESA will be providing the propulsion module. If not, NASA has said, it will contract the work to U.S. industry.

German officials have openly suggested that France is hoping to delay a decision on the Orion work until it is too late, effectively forcing Europe and NASA to consider alternatives for Europe’s station operating cost reimbursement.

Yannick d’Escatha, president of the French space agency, CNES, denied that this was the case. Briefing reporters here, d’Escatha said Europe’s space station program has budget issues that need to be resolved before a decision is made on what is often called the “Barter Element” with NASA.

For multiple reasons, including Italy’s government budget crisis, he said, the nearly 4 billion-euro space station spending plan through 2020 that ESA nations agreed to is now several hundred million euros short.

“If we cannot afford to operate our own section of the space station to 2020, it doesn’t make much sense to talk about a Barter Element with NASA that would cover our common operating costs through 2020,” d’Escatha said. “The Barter Element is of little value if we cannot afford to operate the station to 2020, and as things stand today that financing has not been secured.”

D’Escatha said the budget shortfall totals some 480 million euros, including 180 million euros for the Columbus Control Center, which operates Europe’s Columbus space station laboratory.

None of these issues is the result of French cutbacks, he said. “We have not reduced our planned station investment by one cent,” d’Escatha said, adding that France could support an Orion propulsion module contribution as long as the investment also included technologies of greater interest to Europe.