France Moves To Get Industry, Government on Same Page with Creation of Cospace Group

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PARIS — The French government on Sept. 4 created a joint government-industry grouping, called Cospace, to avoid a repeat of the policy disputes that pitted French industry against the French space agency, CNES, in 2012.

The government also announced that CNES would be receiving, before the end of the year, a fresh cash infusion of 50 million euros ($66 million) as part of the French Investments in the Future government bond initiative.

Half the money will be used to finance a new, larger-capacity fairing for the Ariane 5 ECA rocket, with the fairing to be in service in 2015. The remaining 25 million euros will be invested in technologies to stimulate development of telecommunications satellites employing all-electric propulsion.

The 20-nation European Space Agency (ESA) is also investing in all-electric satellites in response to the introduction of a new commercial product by Boeing Space and Intelligence Systems of El Segundo, Calif.

The underlying disagreements about whether Europe should scrap a planned upgrade to its heavy-lift Ariane 5 rocket in favor of full-speed-ahead development of a new-generation Ariane 6 have not disappeared since ESA’s November 2012 ministerial conference in Naples, Italy. 

But in creating the Cospace grouping, French Research Minister Genevieve Fioraso expects to craft a consensus of French opinion before the next ministerial conference in 2014. That conference is expected to decide full development of Ariane 6, the Ariane 5 Midlife Evolution (ME), or both.

Fioraso arrived at her post not long before the last ESA ministerial conference. She has said she was shocked to learn, on arriving at her job, that what she calls “Space Team France” did not have a united view on the eve of what were, as predicted, tough all-night negotiations with Germany on Europe’s future space policy.

The agreement that came out of that conference — initial work on Ariane 6 and continued development of the Ariane 5 ME rocket — papered over the differences of opinion in France, and between France and Germany, by giving both sides of the issue a reason to declare victory.

Since then, not much has changed. The German government remains skeptical about Ariane 6 and even more skeptical about whether France will be able to finance simultaneous development of Ariane 5 ME and Ariane 6. France has signaled its intention to pay for 50 percent of Ariane 6.

The differences with Germany exposed at the Naples meeting were tied to differences between CNES and Astrium Space Transportation, a division of EADS that has major production facilities in both France and Germany.

For Astrium, and particularly for Astrium’s German sites, Ariane 5 ME and its new upper stage are a job producer, while Ariane 6 is a question mark in terms of jobs.

German government officials have also said that while Ariane 6 may please the international market of commercial telecommunications satellite operators, European governments do not invest billions of euros just to please the commercial market. Certain government missions, notably carrying heavy exploration payloads, that could be accommodated by Ariane 5 ME would be out of the reach of Ariane 6.

For Fioraso and CNES, Ariane 5 ME is of dubious value at a time when Europe’s governments are no longer using Ariane 5 as much as they use the Europeanized version of Russia’s medium-lift Soyuz rocket operated from Europe’s Guiana Space Center on the northeast coast of South America.

Ariane 6 is intended to succeed both Ariane 5 and the European version of Soyuz by launching payloads weighing between 3,000 and 6,500 kilograms into geostationary transfer orbit.

Fioraso reiterated the urgency of Ariane 6 during a press briefing here Sept. 4 after the first meeting of the Cospace group, which is overseen by the minister; the president of CNES, Jean-Yves Le Gall; and the president of the French aerospace industries association, GIFAS, Marwan Lahoud, who is chief strategy and marketing officer at EADS.

Not for the first time, Fioraso referred to the planned market entry of the Falcon 9 v1.1 rocket built and operated by Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX) of Hawthorne, Calif.

The upgraded Falcon 9 has booked more than $1 billion in commercial launch orders by offering prices that are as much as 50 percent lower than the prevailing Ariane 5 prices.

The new Falcon 9’s inaugural flight, now set for mid-September, has been repeatedly delayed — a fact that ironically has not helped the French government’s dispute with Germany concerning Ariane 5 ME versus Ariane 6.

Industry officials said that the best argument for Ariane 6 — a modular vehicle being built to launch satellites at a total cost of 70 million euros ($92 million) — would be a successful Falcon 9 v1.1 performance.

“If Falcon 9 demonstrates its ability to launch at the advertised prices, on a regular basis, before the 2014 ministerial, that would be seen as a strong argument for Ariane 6,” said one industry official who is backing Ariane 6. “If the vehicle falters, or continues to be delayed, then the need for Ariane 6 may not be as obvious to some.”

Fioraso evoked the Boeing all-electric satellite again during the Cospace briefing, saying Europe needs to keep pace with commercial market developments like this, in the same way that Ariane 6 is in part a response to SpaceX.