Ariane 6 rocket in 64 configuration
Ariane 6 rocket in 64 configuration. Credit: ESA/D. Ducros

BRUSSELS, Belgium – A senior European Commission official on Jan. 12 said the commission should have a direct role in the design of Europe’s next-generation rocket and the organization of Europe’s launch sector, having missed the opportunity with the Ariane 6 vehicle now expected to enter service in 2020.

Philippe Brunet, a director of the commission’s DG Growth, responsible for industry and entrepreneurship, also said Europe should put additional pressure on individual European governments and companies to buy European.

In remarks that suggested the commission regretted that the European Space Agency is not investing more heavily in reusable rockets, Brunet said the commission needed to make its voice heard now that it has become the biggest single European customer for satellites and launch vehicles.

“Blue Origin and SpaceX have conducted [reusability demonstrations] recently that raise the issue of whether we are on the cusp of a big technology change,” Brunet said here during the 8th Annual Conference on European Space Policy, organized by Business Bridge of Brussels, referencing Jeff Bezos’ launch-and-return demonstration at Blue Origin and the SpaceX return of its rocket’s first stage. “If that’s the case, we need to prepare for it starting now.”

Brunet, known for his muscular defenses of European Commission authority, said the commission would launch several dozen navigation and Earth observation satellites in the next 10-15 years at a total cost of 1.5 billion euros, or about $1.6 billion at current exchange rates.

The commission has become launch service provider Arianespace’s biggest single customer, accounting for 835 million euros in Arianespace’s current backlog, Arianespace Chief Executive Stephane Israel said.

“Without the orders that the European Union has put on the table, there is no new launcher” in Europe, Brunet said, adding: “In what other industry does the number-one customer have no voice in the way the launcher is designed? Look hard: You won’t find one – except the European launcher sector.”

Brunet’s remarks were echoed by Alain Proust, a French member of the European Parliament and a vice chair of the parliament’s Sky and Space Group.

Proust said the European government market is not big enough to provide the necessary launch rhythm that would make reusable rockets economic, unlike the United States. But if reusable vehicles catch on, they could leave Ariane 6 in the dust, he said.

Proust said the European Commission’s investment in launchers should also take the form of being lead financier for a trans-Atlantic cable between Portugal and Brazil, which he said should replace the current cable, which passes too closely to the U.S. National Security Agency and is too easily compromised.

Europe’s Guiana Space Center spaceport is in French Guiana, which is French territory on the northeast coast of South America.

“The current cable passes by the United States and there are two problems,” Proust said. “The first is that its capacity is too low. But above all is the question of data confidentiality. The cable passes not far from an NSA center.

“A solution exists: Attach French Guiana to the future cable and let’s get it financed mainly by the European Union. It’s too important for Europe not to get interested in this project when it’s a question of European Union territory.”

Brunet said the European Commission, starting in 2017, will begin investment in a future launcher program. He said nothing about whether the commission would contribute to the European spaceport, a subject of debate for several years now.

His assertion that the European Commission needed to take part in the design of the post-Ariane 6 rocket caught several officials off guard. The European Space Agency, the French space agency, CNES, and European industry – led by Airbus Safran Launchers – have spent about two years restructuring their relationship to give industry more power in launcher development.

Airbus Safran Launchers has agreed to pay about 150 million euros for CNES’s 35-percent stake in Arianespace.

Alain Charmeau, chief executive of Airbus Safran Launchers, who was on the panel where Brunet made his remarks, said his company would welcome European Commission assistance in financing the European spaceport.

Brunet said his goal is that a small future-launcher program at the commission begins in 2017 to be ready to grow substantially in the commission’s next seven-year budget, starting in 2021 – a year after Ariane 6 is scheduled to make its inaugural flight.

One European industry official said privately: “If I buy 1,000 Mercedes cars, do I then get to design the vehicles? Customers should be consulted, not invited into the design room.”

Peter B. de Selding was the Paris bureau chief for SpaceNews.