Companies have diverging views on the future of European launch

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BREMEN, Germany — Arianespace and German launch startups Isar Aerospace and Rocket Factory Augsburg are moving towards first launches next year but have mixed views on how the European launch sector has and should develop.

Speakers from an established, institutional player in Arianespace and a pair of new companies from Europe’s emerging commercial launch arena appeared together on a panel on “Aligning European Launch Development for Mission Success,” at the Space Tech Expo Europe in Bremen, Germany, Nov. 16.

Arianespace will launch its final three Ariane 5 missions next year, including ESA’s Juice mission to Jupiter, and then transition to the first launch of the Ariane 6, Manuel Oesterschlink, head of CEO office and institutional relations at Arianespace said.

That launch will come late in the year. “We often have our successes on Christmas, like we did with James Webb last time, so maybe this will be another Christmas present,” Oesterschlink said.

Isar Aerospace and Rocket Factory Augsburg meanwhile are working towards their own, first flights, with their respective new, light lift orbital launchers.

“We are super excited about this upcoming year. We are building, testing and we will be soon launching Spectrum, which is a vehicle that it’s designed to lift about a ton to LEO,” Stella Guillen, chief commercial officer at Isar Aerospace, said.

Jörn Spurmann, chief commercial officer at Rocket Factory Augsburg (RFA), said the team is working hard everyday and has a second stage on the stand in Esrange, Sweden, for testing, building towards a launch in late 2023.

That the new launch vehicles are not ready is problematic, Guillen notes. “We don’t have the capacity that we need, especially in Europe. More than 50 launches are happening from the US when in Europe we launch what, four or five so far. So I think we need the capacity and we need to lower the cost to access space.

“We honestly we’re late and the market demand is happening right now and we already understand there’s urgency to catch up. Customers have basically one choice right now to launch and it’s not from Europe. We need to launch faster and reliably and economically and we need to change that,” Guillen said.

The question of meeting demand highlighted different views. ArianeGroup COO Karl-Heinz Servos, ArianeGroup, speaking on a Nov. 14 panel, said it is seeking investment and support to be able to increase the cadence of Ariane 6 from the up to 12 per year currently built in.

Spurmann however strongly stated his view that commercial space is the way forward. “Can we continue to spend €6 billion on an Ariane 6 or 7 and people are telling us it’s half the price of what it was before?”

“You spent 50 million a year on the Boost! program on seven small launch companies. I think overall they hired a thousand people throughout the last three years, and four or five are seeing the first launch next year. Why would you ever spend billions again on a launch system development from the institutional side?”

Discussion moderator Thilo Kranz, ESA’s Commercial Space Transportation Programme Manager, provided a counterpoint, stating that at the previous event in Bremen last year Arianespace, Isar Aerospace and RFA each stated late 2022 as the target for their respective first launches of the new rockets. 

Kranz also noted a need for European autonomy in strategic fields and cautioned that how the commercial field proceeds and develops remains to be seen.

Spurmann, on a question on why Europe did not develop reusable launchers first, said the answer is because “ESA didn’t have the vision, and because there were no commercial launches. Before it was all institutionally driven. And in that sense, why not change it? Why not see how many things can be commercialized in the European space industry and try to push that forward?”

The issue of Starship was seen as a big, looming question in the room, particularly whether or not its capacities, once online, would mean no other launchers are needed anymore. 

“When I talk to people launching on the Transporter missions on the Falcon 9, it’s in terms of delays in interfacing, in documentation, things they have to create,” Spurmann said. “They’re making the rocket even bigger. It’s not helping the problem that they’re having. 

Oesterschlink drew attention however to what he sees as a big development happening at the moment. “It’s the constellations… Constellations that from our point of view, are where they really need big launches to deploy the constellation quickly,”

Oesterschlink added that there is space for smaller launches but that recent developments with Amazon’s Kuiper constellation demonstrate that, “they are happy to have a big launcher to make this possible.”

Asked about 10 years in the future, all three representatives agreed that European human spaceflight capabilities, whatever institutional, commercial or mixed, was the dream. 

For now, though, there are more immediate, pressing challenges. “We are 15 years behind the US right now in terms of cadence of launch so in 10 years we should be able to catch up a little bit,” Guillen said.