Europe proposes launcher alliance

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WASHINGTON — The European Union is proposing a “launcher alliance” involving companies and governments to develop the next generation of European launch vehicles, although some European startups are skeptical of those plans.

In a June 22 speech highlighting the EU’s space programs, including the signing of a Financial Framework Partnership Agreement with the European Space Agency, the EU commissioner responsible for space highlighted the launcher alliance as part of a “ambitious and disruptive space agenda.”

“There is no space policy without autonomous access to space,” said Thierry Breton, commissioner for the internal market. “However, it is a segment under massive business and technological changes.”

He said the EU had a “fantastic” launch vehicle industry, but that given growing global completion, Europe needed a “more offensive and aggressive strategy.” He called for cooperation among EU member states to support that strategy.

“This is why I proposed an alliance for launchers to have a shared road map for the next generation of EU launchers, a road map building on both traditional and NewSpace actors,” he said. “The initiative will involve all member states, national space agencies, ESA and industry.”

Exactly what the launcher alliance’s activities will be was not clear, although Breton said that EU funding will be available for the first time to support the industry, from research and development to block buys of vehicles for EU’s flagship satellite programs.

At a brief press conference after his remarks, Breton said the EU was working to have “all of the players involved around the table” for the alliance. “We are now working on the terms of the alliance, and hopefully we’ll launch it very quickly because we don’t have time to lose.”

Breton first mentioned the concept of the launcher alliance at the beginning of the year, but he and other EU officials have provided few details since. At the NewSpace Atlantic Summit June 8, Matthias Petschke, director of space in the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Defence Industry and Space, compared it to other industry alliances established in Europe for industries ranging from batteries to plastics.

“They bring together the public sector and the industry, the big established companies and the small new companies,” he said of such alliances. “With this initiative, we are going to look into a number of challenges for the European launcher industry.”

Those challenges, he said, include government demand for launchers in Europe that is significantly less than in the United States. The EU’s new secure connectivity initiative, which will eventually feature a satellite constellation providing communications services, could help stimulate demand.

Petschke said the alliance will also examine ways to make launchers more competitive, such as lowering prices, as well as ways to promote more investment into launch vehicles.

Petschke appeared on a panel with representatives of some European startups pursuing small launch vehicles. Those companies seemed skeptical about the benefits of the proposed alliance.

“I would like to know more details about that alliance,” said Raúl Torres, chief executive of Spanish launch startup PLD Space. “To me, it sounds a bit complex to put everyone into the same context and try to develop something like a new launcher.”

Jörn Spurmann, chief commercial officer of RFA, a German small launch vehicle startup, said the launcher alliance needed to focus on attracting business for European launch companies. “I think we should very actively go away from fully funding launch system and satellite projects but rather a commercial scenario,” he said.

“Cooperation is good, but competition is also good,” Torres said. “Maybe we have to allow competition in Europe, and cooperation if it’s needed. In my opinion, competition is more important than cooperation at this stage.”

ESA’s near-term focus

Josef Aschbacher, ESA director general, agreed that Europe needed to do more to make its launch industry competitive. “We used to dominate the launcher market, at least from a commercial perspective. Today, not anymore, and that’s something where Europe needs to seriously work on,” he said during a panel session of the Paris Air Forum June 21.

However, he said his immediate priority is to bring into service the Ariane 6 launch vehicle. “Ariane 6 is our most important launcher to come. We have to put all the energy and all the emphasis into making the maiden flight as soon as possible and making sure that everything works well,” he said.

He revealed that, working in cooperation with prime contractor ArianeGroup and the French space agency CNES, ESA has established an independent assessment of the schedule for the Ariane 6. ESA announced in October 2020 that the vehicle’s first flight, once planned for 2020, had slipped to the second quarter of 2022.

Aschbacher suggested that schedule could see more delays. The independent assessment, he said, will “make sure that we can do everything we need to do to launch on time.” He later defined “on time” as being before the next ESA ministerial meeting, which is tentatively scheduled for late 2022.

“This is a must, because we need good news and good success for our politicians to see that Europe performs, that Europe delivers and, therefore, it is worth investing in space in the ministerial conference,” he said. “This, for me, is a top, top priority.”