PARIS — The French parliamentary committee responsible for technology evaluation threw its weight behind a proposal Nov. 8 that Europe scrap a mid-life upgrade of the Ariane 5 rocket in favor of an early start on a next-generation Ariane 6 rocket.
The committee said its assessment of the global landscape for commercial launch services concluded that Europe had no time to lose in developing a lower-cost vehicle that would be better adapted to the evolving commercial market, and also be better suited to European governments’ own satellites.
The committee paid special attention to the U.S. startup launch services provider Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX) of Hawthorne, Calif., whose Falcon 9 production plant the committee visited.
The visit apparently left a vivid impression.
French Sen. Bruno Sido said to compare the SpaceX facility with the equivalent manufacturing operation of the Ariane 5 rocket, some of which is done in Les Mureaux, France, is to become fearful for the future of Europe’s launch vehicle autonomy.
“Visiting Les Mureaux is like entering an impressive laboratory,” Sido said in a press briefing here. “Visiting SpaceX, which occupies an old factory that once belonged to Boeing, is like entering IKEA. This company has already won many contracts, is well-supported by NASA and is building a low-cost launcher that constitutes a real and serious threat.”
Sido conceded that SpaceX has never made a launch into the geostationary-transfer orbit used by most commercial telecommunications satellites and has yet to demonstrate its ability to produce rockets at a commercial cadence at its currently advertised prices.
But SpaceX, he said, is only one reason to move to an Ariane 6 rocket as soon as possible. India, China and Russia also are developing new launch capabilities that will one day take a larger share of the commercial market than they do today.
He said Europe’s Ariane 5 rocket, which still needs 120 million euros ($160 million) per year in government support payments to maintain financial equilibrium, cannot suffer any loss of its current 50 percent share of the global commercial market.
With a 50 percent share, he said, Ariane 5 can launch six times per year carrying two satellites at a time, with a possible seventh launch depending on satellite availability and the occasional launch on behalf of European governments.
But if just two of these satellites per year were to slip from the grasp of Europe’s Arianespace commercial launch consortium and force a sustained reduction in Ariane 5’s cadence to five launches per year, the system’s financial viability would collapse, he said. That would force still higher government support payments.
Sido is president of the French Parliamentary Office for the Evaluation of Scientific and Technological Choices. The office’s report, “Stakes and Perspectives of Space Policy,” was released Nov. 8, just two weeks before European Space Agency (ESA) ministers meet in Naples, Italy, to determine ESA’s budget and program priorities for the coming years.
French Sen. Catherine Procaccia, who co-authored the report with Sido, said today’s Europe cannot afford to develop a more powerful Ariane 5, called Ariane 5 Midlife Evolution (ME), and start development of Ariane 6 at the same time. She said Ariane 5 ME does not address the commercial-viability issues of the current Ariane 5.
She said the Ariane 5 ME program’s Vinci cryogenic upper stage, which is restartable in orbit, should be retained as an upper stage for Ariane 6, which would use two solid-propellant lower stages and a number of strap-on boosters depending on the weight and mission of the payload.
This is the current thinking of the French space agency, CNES, as well, but is not the opinion of Ariane 5 contractors or the German government, which want to build Ariane 5 ME first.
The committee’s report says there appears to be a disconnect between CNES and the French space industry on multiple issues, not just Ariane’s future. It urges the appointment of a mediator that would help bring the two sides together.
“They talk to each other but they don’t really act in concert,” Procaccia said of CNES and French industry. “In part this is because CNES is a research agency whose first mission is not to support industry, but to serve larger national goals such as autonomy in space access.”
Sido said the CNES mission creates frictions with industry that are not seen between the German Aerospace Center, DLR, and German industry.
“DLR’s goal is to generate work for German industry, on German soil,” Sido said. “Germany wants Ariane 5 ME because it will provide a known amount of work in Germany. Our view is that this does not sufficiently take into account the long-term competitive environment. In Europe, our launch industry is dependent on the commercial market for survival.”
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