UPDATED April 4, 9:30 a.m. EDT

PARIS — The painful compromise on Europe’s future launch vehicle direction agreed to by France and Germany during last November’s conference of European Space Agency (ESA) governments showed initial signs of fraying the week of March 25 in separate statements by the two nations’ space ministers.

At issue is whether the two nations will agree both to complete development, through an inaugural flight in 2018, of the Ariane 5 Midlife Evolution (ME) program while also agreeing to a seven-year investment of about 4 billion euros ($5.2 billion) in a new rocket called Ariane 6. The still-unfinanced portion of Ariane 5 ME is estimated at 1 billion euros or more.

At the November ESA ministerial conference, France wanted to proceed directly to Ariane 6 without necessarily co-investing in Ariane 5 ME. Germany wanted to complete Ariane 5 ME — which includes a large share of work for Astrium’s Bremen, Germany, site — while reserving judgment on Ariane 6.

Both governments claimed victory after the conference. French Research Minister Genevieve Fioraso said France won German approval for Ariane 6. Peter Hintze, Germany’s federal government coordinator for aerospace policy, said Germany won approval to continue development of Ariane 5 ME. Fioraso and Hintze headed their respective delegations to the November conference.

Four months later, both governments appear to have solidified their opinions.

In a March 26 speech to the French Senate, Fioraso made scant mention of Ariane 5 ME while portraying Ariane 6 as a done deal. “Ariane 6 was officially decided,” Fioraso said. She said Europe’s launch vehicle industry has plenty of time to undertake the reorganization necessary to meet Ariane 6’s cost goals given that Ariane 6 will not be flying until 2020 or 2021.

That reorganization is likely to result in a much smaller work force to produce Ariane 6 rockets than the 12,000-strong employment base for today’s Ariane 5 unless market demand for the vehicle is much higher than currently predicted, European launch experts agree.

The following day, at a Bremen ceremony celebrating the five years of orbital life of Europe’s Columbus laboratory at the international space station — Germany led Europe’s space station development — Hintze put a different spin on what the November conference agreed to do.

In a summary of the event, Astrium referred to the November conference as having agreed to “the further development of Ariane 5 ME and possibly Ariane 6.”

“The decision to continue the development of Ariane 5 ME with the new upper stage was important,” Hintze said, according to a summary of his remarks provided by Astrium. “There was a lot riding on that decision, particularly for the Bremen location with its upper stage expertise.”

In March 27 testimony to the French National Assembly, Arianespace Chief Executive Jean-Yves Le Gall, who on April 3 was appointed president of the French space agency, CNES, said it remains unclear whether Ariane 5 ME will be funded through to its inaugural flight.

“We’ll be spending two years working on Ariane 5 while beginning work on Ariane 6 — with a maximum amount of synergy between them to save money,” Le Gall said. “We’ll see in late 2014 what decisions to take based on three elements: First, cost estimated for Ariane 6. Second, the evolution of the [launch services] market and its requirements. The last is financial — we’ll have to work within the budgets available.”

As for Ariane 6, Astrium said that “a study to clarify unresolved issues around the successor launch system … will be completed by mid-2013.”

At the ESA ministerial conference, France agreed to invest 115 million euros in the two-year development work now under way for Ariane 6. Germany invested 10 million euros.

For Ariane 5 ME, Germany agreed to invest 88 million euros, with France, whose industry builds about 50 percent of Ariane 5, investing 77 million euros.

A third category of investment in a common upper stage for Ariane 5 ME and Ariane 6, both based on the Vinci restartable engine under development by Snecma of France, received 97 million euros in commitments from France and 108 million euros from Germany.

The ESA ministerial conference planned for mid-2014 will deal not only with the prickly Ariane 5 ME/Ariane 6 transition, but also with future funding of the international space station.

Germany’s role in financing the space station has increased with the reduced contributions of France and Italy, a fact that the German government has criticized.

In her March 26 address to the French Senate, Fioraso highlighted France’s success in reducing its space station participation to 20 percent from 27 percent following “a compromise with Germany.”

ESA had asked its governments for 1.32 billion euros for space station over the two years to the end of 2014. It received just under 1.1 billion in part because of the reductions in support from France and Italy. Of the money committed, Germany invested about 41 percent. France contributed about 21 percent and Italy, 9.2 percent.



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Peter B. de Selding was the Paris Bureau Chief for SpaceNews.