NOORDWIJK, Netherlands —

Program officials working on t

he European Space Agency’s (ESA)

future launcher technology development hope

to use an expected reduction in

government funding for the

Ariane 5 rocket to win an increase in funding for

future expendable launch vehicles.

Future Launcher Preparatory Program (FLPP), after years of tepid backing from the agency’s member states, has turned its focus away from reusable vehicles. Now it is working on several

technologies that could be used together for a next-generation rocket, or separately to effect less-dramatic improvements in Europe’s existing Ariane 5 and future Vega rockets.

FLPP was approved first by ESA in 2003 but by 2004 was able to secure only 35 million euros ($52

million) in support from the agency’s member governments, some of which preferred to continue their separate efforts rather than join a common ESA-managed effort.

National efforts have been under way for years at ESA’s three biggest contributors – France, Germany and Italy. These efforts continue, but in 2005 these three nations led a more-successful funding drive that added around 312 million euros to FLPP. This money is supposed to last through 2009. France is financing 29 percent of the work, Italy 21 percent and Germany 20 percent.

An FLPP Industry Workshop at ESA’sEstec technology center here

Feb. 5 showcased the wide range of research on new materials and propulsion technologies for future expendable rockets under way at the more than 60 companies from 13 nations now on contract for FLPP.

Antonio Fabrizi, ESA’s director of launchers, said that while FLPP cannot yet point to any crowd-pleasing breakthroughs, it is making steady progress in enough areas to be judged a success. Just as important, he said, is the fact that FLPP is Europe’s signal that it intends to retain its autonomy in launch systems.

One of Fabrizi’s key goals in 2008 is to persuade ESA governments that FLPP should be granted at least part of the 200 million euros in annual funding that has been used to pay for an Ariane 5 cost-recovery program called European Guaranteed Access to Space. This program is set to expire in 2010. ESA ministers are scheduled to meet in November to decide on a multiyear spending program.

“What we know is that our Ariane 5 and Vega vehicles will be operational until around 2020, and we have to start preparing what comes next right now given the time it takes to develop new launcher technology,” Fabrizi said.

and Guy Pilchen, ESA’s FLPP program manager, noted that ESA began preliminary Ariane 5 rocket research in 1985 and approved the full development program in 1987. The vehicle did not make its first flight – a failure – until 1996. The rocket’s design and performance were not considered

fully stabilized until between 2002 and 2003.

The FLPP program’s reference goal is to develop technologies that would lead to a rocket capable of delivering between 5,000 and 8,000 kilograms of satellite payload into geostationary transfer orbit, the destination point for most commercial telecommunications satellites, at far less cost than today’s rockets.

The FLPP program’s most visible efforts are the Vinci restartable upper-stage engine for Ariane 5, and the IXV lifting-body flight demonstrator. Because of the limited funding, IXV’s flight, aboard a Vega rocket, has been delayed by two years, to 2012.

The vehicle is designed to make less than a full Earth orbit after

launching from Europe’s Guiana Space Center in French Guiana and a

landing in the Pacific Ocean. The launch will occur 14 years after the successful flight of the Atmospheric Re-entry Demonstrator (ARD), which was Europe’s first re-entry spacecraft.

Fabrizi said the Vinci engine development, which today consumes about one-third of the total FLPP budget, will either move to full-scale development as part of an industrial effort outside of FLPP or it will be shelved once its last research-related tests are completed.

It remains unclear whether the Arianespace commercial-launch consortium would adopt Vinci immediately, as the company has placed a high premium on having a single Ariane 5 vehicle design instead of multiple variants.

When FLPP first was proposed it was supposed to point the way to a large cooperative effort on future vehicles with Russia. But in part because of tensions over work share between ESA member nations, and in part because ESA wanted the partnership with Russia to include no exchange of funds, the collaborative work is now at a standstill.

Fabrizi said FLPP’s operating mandate permits partnerships outside Europe, but that multilateral launcher-development efforts require technology-security agreements signed by each government involved in the work. “It is not a simple matter, but we have not excluded it,” Fabrizi said.

For now, FLPP remains limited to Europe, and even those few components in the program that are purchased from the United States often are highlighted as needing review. At the workshop here, industry officials said the use of a U.S.-built spark plug in FLPP’s Vinci engine will have to end because of concerns about U.S. technology-export regulations.