PARIS — Employees of Europe’s Arianespace launch services company on July 8 staged a 30-minute work stoppage to express their anxiety about the company’s future in light of industrial and government calls for an overhaul of Europe’s launch sector.

The walkout occurred even as ministers responsible for space policy in five European governments were meeting in Geneva to assess competing designs for a next-generation Ariane 6 rocket. The ministers from France, Germany, Italy, Belgium and Switzerland made no formal decision but agreed to reassess the situation in September after further study of the costs associated with the two designs.

For the moment, ministers from the 20-nation European Space Agency are still scheduled to meet in December in Luxembourg to make final decisions on how to adapt the Ariane rocket system to a new competitive environment. The ministers will also determine Europe’s future involvement in the international space station.

Ariane builder Airbus Defence and Space Group and engine builder Safran have proposed to create a joint-venture company to streamline Europe’s rocket sector and cut costs. The two companies have said their proposed undertaking — which they suggested would occur only if ESA governments accept their Ariane 6 design and management proposal — likely would be enlarged to include Evry, France-based Arianespace and ultimately other Ariane industrial contractors.

Whether Arianespace would survive intact or disappear inside the Airbus-Safran company is unclear, as is whether Arianespace would quit its Evry headquarters outside Paris for another location.

One Arianespace official said the July 8 walkout was not intended as a protest against Arianespace management or shareholders, but rather a broadly focused expression of disquiet about the company’s future.

Arianespace Chief Executive Stephane Israel has embraced the Airbus-Safran proposal and gone so far as to say Arianespace’s entry into the industrial company might offer Arianespace employees more career choices. He has not denied that the changes now afoot in Europe’s launch sector would affect Arianespace, and said the move to a more efficient business scheme would require sacrifices.

ESA governments in late 2012 agreed on a mostly solid-fueled Ariane 6 that could be operated for 70 million euros ($95 million) per launch starting around 2021. Airbus and Safran have been working on this design for more than a year and gave ESA detailed cost estimates June 18.

But the companies said commercial satellite fleet operators did not like the design and that the Airbus-Safran alternative — also presented to ESA June 18 — would be more likely to win commercial business even if it was more expensive than the ESA design.

The new president of the Italian Space Agency, Roberto Battiston, on July 4 said competitiveness should be the only criterion by which an Ariane 6 design is judged. In an interview, Battiston said Italy is determined to upgrade the Vega small-satellite launcher, which is led by Italy, despite its government’s budget stresses.

The Airbus-Safran design appears to offer fewer synergies with Vega than the ESA design, and less of a role for Italian industry.

Battiston said that while Airbus and Safran submitted their alternative design as a take-it-or-leave-it proposition, “it is not clear at this stage that there is no alternative to their design. Both ESA and Italy have some reservations about the competitiveness of the [Airbus-Safran] design.”

Battiston, who assumed his post in May, said it may not be possible for any Ariane 6 design to satisfy all prospective customer sets, both government and commercial.

The future of Italy’s launcher sector, led by Avio SpA, which is industrial prime contractor for Vega, remains unclear insofar as neither parent company Finmeccanica nor the Italian government has decided the future ownership of Avio, which has been for sale for more than a year. Airbus and Safran have both said they would like to purchase Avio.

Battiston said the Italian government is aware that a decision on Avio needed to be made as part of the wider debate on future launchers in Europe.


Follow Peter on Twitter: @pbdes


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