European Space Agency Director General Jean-Jacques Dordain is taking the right approach to developing and manufacturing Europe’s next-generation Ariane 6 launcher, specifically with plans to let price rather than policy dictate the geographic distribution of work on the multibillion-dollar project. 

If ESA is to hit its 70 million euro ($95 million) per-launch price target for the Ariane 6 — it appears the price will have to be in that neighborhood to be commercially competitive — it cannot do things the old way. The manufacturing scheme for Europe’s current Ariane 5 workhorse, for example, is based largely on the agency’s longstanding geographic return policy, whereby work is divvied up among member nations in proportion to their individual contributions to the project. 

While fair from a political standpoint, geographic return does not necessarily yield the most logical or economically efficient manufacturing arrangements. On Ariane 5, this is evidenced by the fact that the rocket’s operator, Arianespace, requires annual support payments from ESA to stay out of the red.

Mr. Dordain and ESA are approaching Ariane 6 from a different direction: Competing industry teams have been given wide latitude to devise development and manufacturing schemes for the rocket, and cost, along with technical feasibility, will dictate who gets selected. This will determine the geographic distribution of the work, which in turn will dictate which ESA members foot the bill. 

As Mr. Dordain put it, in characteristically succinct fashion: “Basically, I will go to those member states and say, ‘Good news: Your industry has been selected as among the best for Ariane 6. The bad news is that now you’re going to have to pay for it.’”

 Given the skilled jobs associated with designing and manufacturing a modern rocket, the good news should, over time, outweigh the bad for the participating countries.

Big questions still surround Europe’s future launcher strategy. It remains to be seen, for example, whether Europe can afford to develop both the Ariane 6, at an estimated cost of 3 billion to 4 billion euros, and the Ariane 5 Midlife Extension upgrade, which is expected to cost 1 billion euros. France would prefer to get cracking on Ariane 6, while Germany wants the Ariane 5 upgrade, and neither side has given any indication of backing down.   

Sooner or later, however, Ariane 6 will be built. Whenever that work begins in earnest, it seems likely to follow a scheme that gives the vehicle its best shot at competitiveness in the years ahead. Scrapping geographic return might not work for all or even most future ESA programs, since funding for nonscience projects is typically contingent on some guarantee of national economic benefit, but in the jungles of the commercial launch business, there really is no other option.