PARIS — The chief of Europe’s Arianespace launch consortium on Jan. 5 said competitor SpaceX’s recovery of the first stage of its Falcon 9 rocket, spectacular though it was, does not demonstrate the economic viability of stage reuse.
The proof of the pudding, Arianespace Chief Executive Stephane Israel said, will come only after a thorough assessment of the stresses incurred by the stage as it traced what time-lapse photos show as a giant “X” in the sky — a line for its ascent, and then another, broken line as it powered its way back from about 75 kilometers in altitude.
At a briefing here outlining Evry, France-based Arianespace 2015 record and plans for 2016, Israel sought to portray Arianespace as once again in the driver’s seat when it comes to commercial launches.
After drawing even with Hawthorne, California-based SpaceX in 2014, with nine commercial orders each, Arianespace’s count for 2015 showed its Ariane 5 rocket winning 14 contracts for geostationary-orbit satellites, compared to nine for SpaceX and one each for International Launch Services of Reston, Virginia, which markets Russia’s Proton; and for the Atlas 5 rocket of United Launch Alliance of Centennial, Colorado.
Arianespace’s count includes one undisclosed customer. Unless it’s identified, it will not be included in SpaceNews’s annual count of firm contract awards. Of the 13 satellites remaining, two are for Europe’s meteorological satellite organization, Eumetsat, and cannot be considered commercial wins.
In addition to the geostationary-satellite contracts, Arianespace in 2015 booked the largest single launch contract, to use 21 Russian Soyuz rockets — including the Europeanized version operated from Europe’s spaceport — to launch the OneWeb low-orbiting broadband constellation.
Europe’s Vega small-satellite launch vehicle, operated by Arianespace, booked orders for two Falcon Eye optical reconnaissance satellites for the United Arab Emirates, a four-satellite package from Google’s Skybox Imaging geospatial intelligence company, and Peru’s PeruSat-1 optical Earth observation satellite.
Israel said Arianespace’s 2015 contract wins totaled 2.5 billion euros ($2.75 billion), of which 35 percent of the value was for Ariane 5 launches and the rest — led by the billion-euro OneWeb order, for non-geostationary-orbit missions.
Arianespace conducted a record 12 launches in 2015 — six heavy-lift Ariane 5 missions, 3 medium-lift Soyuz campaigns and three for Vega. It is that rhythm that Arianespace would like to maintain in the coming years, and which resulted in a record 1.4 billion euros in revenue for Arianespace.
Israel declined to give an estimate of operating profit but said that when the 100-million-euro price support from the European Space Agency is included, Arianespace reached break-even, which is what the company’s mandate is from its owners.
For 2016, the company foresees launching as many as eight Ariane 5 rockets, including two carrying just one passenger — for Intelsat in January and Paris-based Eutelsat in March. Both companies were anxious to get their satellites in orbit as soon as possible, even if that meant not waiting for suitable smaller co-passengers to be ready.
Israel said Ariane 5 prime contractor Airbus Safran Launchers’ creation in 2015 made it possible to bring the price for these two customers down to an acceptable level, even if it was more than what they would have paid with a co-passenger.
For Arianespace and Airbus Safran Launches, the Intelsat and Eutelsat decisions smoothed out Ariane 5’s 2015 delivery and launch cadence.
Just one Soyuz and two Vega launches are planned for 2016, bringing the total planned activity to 11 launches. But because the manifest includes more Ariane 5s than in 2015, Arianespace expects to report higher 2016 revenue than in 2015.
As has been the case for several years, Israel and the president of the French space agency, Jean-Yves Le Gall — whose annual briefing was Jan. 4 — were peppered with questions about SpaceX.
Both of them maintained their previous positions that profitably reusing rocket engines or, in SpaceX’s case, full rocket stages is difficult mainly for what happens once the hardware is recovered.
Led by the French government, Arianespace all but invented the commercial launch business in the 1980s by ignoring U.S. government assurances that the reusable U.S. space shuttle would make expendable launch vehicles like Ariane obsolete.
The challenges of reusability, Le Gall and Israel said, have not disappeared since then. The stress on stage or engine structures of high-speed passage through the atmosphere, the performance penalty of reserving fuel for the return flight instead of maximizing rocket lift capacity, the need for many annual launches to make the economics work – all remain issues, they said.
“When we launch Ariane 5 we try to fill it to capacity,” Israel said. “We’re not cutting performance by saving fuel for a return to the launch base.”
SpaceX Chief Executive Elon Musk said after the Dec. 21 on-target landing of the Falcon 9 Full Thrust rocket’s first stage that there was “no damage found,” and that the stage was “ready to fire again.”
European government and industry officials said they would reserve judgment on the exploit pending a thorough examination of the stage and a technical report delivered to prospective customers and insurance underwriters.
Until then, Israel said, Europe’s coming Ariane 6 rocket – to be priced at between 90 million and 100 million euros or about one-half of the current Ariane 5 – appears well-suited to the future commercial market.
He said Arianespace in 2015 reduced the cost of operations at Europe’s Guiana Space Center spaceport by 7 percent in return for offering its industrial contractors a longer-term contract.
Cost-competitiveness, he said, will be key to maintaining market share, he said – not just against SpaceX, but against current or emerging competitors in Russia, India, Japan and China. “Let’s not get SpaceX-centric,” Israel said. “We have always had competition.”