Editorial | Forward, Not Backward, on Ariane 6

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A report urging the European Space Agency (ESA) to abandon its chosen design for the future Ariane 6 rocket appears to be driven more by industrial base considerations than the competitiveness of Europe’s commercial launch industry.

The report, prepared by a working group of Europe’s Air & Space Academy and released in May, said ESA should scrap the Ariane 6 design that features a solid-fueled first stage. A vehicle with a liquid-fueled first stage, the report argues, can more easily be upgraded to meet the ever-evolving needs of the commercial satellite industry.

Composed of former ESA directors and space industry officials, the working group further argued that pursuing the current Ariane 6 design would cause upheaval in Europe’s propulsion industry, possibly causing Germany, which hosts substantial liquid-fueled engine manufacturing facilities, to withdraw from the program. Instead, the report said, ESA should upgrade the existing Ariane 5 heavy-lift rocket and spend the next four years designing an Ariane 6 vehicle with a liquid-fueled first stage.

The working group’s recommendations appear to back Germany in its ongoing disagreement with France — the two countries are ESA’s biggest contributors — over future launch vehicle investment strategy. Germany wants to upgrade the Ariane 5, a vehicle optimized to carry two satellites at once, while France wants to proceed directly to the Ariane 6, a modular rocket designed to carry one satellite at a time. 

But the report fails to adequately take time into account, and in the commercial space business, time is money. Because its design is relatively mature and based largely on proven hardware, the Ariane 6 would be available several years earlier than a liquid-fueled alternative. Arianespace, the France-based consortium that operates Europe’s launch vehicles, currently needs ESA support payments to break even on Ariane 5, a dependency that’s unlikely to go away — arguably it could become greater — as low-cost competitors like Space Exploration Technologies Corp. establish themselves in the commercial marketplace

The Ariane 5 Midlife Extension (ME) upgrade favored by Germany may or may not solve Arianespace’s profitability problem, which stems in large part from the difficulty of finding two appropriately sized satellites to launch on each commercial mission. With its greater payload-carrying capacity, the upgraded rocket would provide more flexibility, but Arianespace would still face the issue of late-arriving satellites that can play havoc with dual-launch manifests.

At its ministerial meeting in November, ESA sought to mollify both France and Germany, opting to continue design work on the Ariane 5 ME and Ariane 6. But it is far from clear whether the agency can simultaneously fund full-scale development of both. This issue will have to be resolved in the coming year or two.

In the meantime, however, there exists an Ariane 6 design that has won the endorsement of ESA ministers and is expected to be ready for full-scale development by late 2014. According to Antonio Fabrizi, ESA director of launchers, Germany would claim 20-25 percent of the industrial work share on the Ariane 6 as currently designed — the vehicle would have a cryogenic upper stage — thus assuring German government support for the program. Mr. Fabrizi, who says ESA has no intention of revisiting the Ariane 6 design, also points out that solid-fuel boosters can be upgraded if market conditions warrant.

There’s no way to predict which option — the solid-fueled Ariane 6 or Ariane 5 ME — will be best suited to the future commercial launch market. But the Air & Space Academy’s report complicates an already tough decision, while urging ESA to throw away more than a year’s worth of work on a vehicle design that was optimized from the start for commercial-market competitiveness. Mr. Fabrizi is right to stick to his guns on Ariane 6.