NAPLES, Italy — The French government appears to have buckled to German demands on key European space programs on Nov. 21, accepting that an enhanced Ariane 5 rocket will be developed to completion for a first flight in 2017 and that Europe contribute to NASA’s Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle as part of its space station program.
In an informal briefing with reporters here as a two-day meeting of European Space Agency () governments ended, French Research Minister Genevieve Fioraso said France had accepted that the Ariane 5 Midlife Evolution rocket, which Germany had supported and France had questioned, be developed and flown.
Fioraso said France had agreed to contribute 20 percent to Europe’s development of a propulsion module for NASA’s Orion vehicle — a development that France had criticized as having little political or technological use for Europe.
France also agreed to maintain its 27 percent share of Europe’s overall contributions to the international space station. The agreement on the space station budget, and the contribution to NASA’s Orion, will permit ESA to maintain its role in the station until 2020.
Fioraso said the ministerial conference, and notably Germany, accepted the need to develop a less-expensive successor to Ariane 5, and that the Ariane 6 vehicle’s design work should start immediately.
This vehicle, whose costs have been estimated at around 4 billion euros ($5.2 billion), is intended as a design-to-cost, less-powerful rocket when compared to the current Ariane 5 ECA, and one that would replace both the Ariane 5 and Europe’s use of the Russian medium-class Soyuz rocket around 2021.
Fiorosa said she was proud that Europe and NASA will be working together on the future Orion crew exploration vehicle.
The French decision to drop from its overall 27 percent share of Europe’s space station program to just 20 percent for the Orion work is one reason why ESA was seeking other governments’ support for the program.
ESA struck pay dirt from a surprising source, when British Science Minister David Willetts on Nov. 21 announced that Britain, which has steered clear of investment in the space station up to now, agreed to spend 20 million euros on the Orion work.
Briefing reporters here, Willetts said the British contribution would be used to develop Orion propulsion module telecommunications elements, a British specialty. He mentioned the British subsidiaries of Moog of the United States andof Canada as likely beneficiaries of the British investment.
Europe has been building Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) cargo carriers to acquit itself of what otherwise would be a debt to NASA, as the space station’s general contractor, for station utilities charges.
But ESA decided to stop ATV construction after the fifth vehicle, leaving about three years of station-utilities charges unpaid starting in 2018. NASA and ESA had agreed that these charges, totaling about 450 million euros, could be paid through European contributions to Orion’s propulsion module.
France had said Orion leaves Europe as a junior partner to NASA and does not offer a showcase program that European citizens could appreciate. But France was at pains to come up with an alternative that was affordable in Europe and acceptable to NASA.
France held out until early Nov. 21, government officials said, hoping to bend Germany to France’s will with respect to Ariane 5 ME and Ariane 6.
After what French and German government officials said was a near-sleepless night, the end result is that Ariane 6 will be studied until 2014 and then, perhaps, proceed to development – depending on the financial resources of France and other governments.
But work on the Ariane 5 ME rocket, with a restartable upper-stage engine that French officials say will also serve Ariane 6, will continue in view to a demonstration flight in 2017. Fioraso said a maximum amount of synergy will be found between Ariane 5 ME and Ariane 6.
Ariane 5 ME will give the current Ariane 5 ECA a 20 percent increase in payload-carrying power, a fact that France had argued does not solve Ariane 5’s current operating-cost problem, nor its competitiveness handicap relative in the changing global commercial launch market.