PARIS — Europe’s planned strategic partnership with Russia on next-generation rockets — a goal that was used to justify purchasing Russia’s Soyuz vehicle to operate at Europe’s equatorial launch base — has foundered because of an apparent lack of interest in Russia, combined with European concerns about work-share distribution, according to European government officials.
The result is that while construction of a Soyuz launch pad at Europe’s Guiana Space Center in French Guiana is proceeding as planned, with commercial launches set to start in early 2009, the promised joint Euro-Russian research effort in next-generation launch vehicles is going nowhere, these officials said.
“Russia’s willingness to work with us on Soyuz has been clear,” said Flaminia Rossi, head of policy and future programs at the launcher directorate of the European Space Agency (). “The problem is that this has not been the case for future launchers. We have not seen concrete steps in Russia to work on future rockets.”
ESA’s decision to finance the construction of a Soyuz launch base at the Guiana Space Center was made at a May 2003 conference of ESA government ministers with the strong backing of the French government.
The Soyuz decision was presented at the time by Jean-Jacques Dordain, director of launchers and now ESA’s director-general, as a necessary step toward any long-term partnership with Russia on the development of rockets to succeed Europe’s Ariane 5 and Russia’s Proton-M and Soyuz.
The French research minister at the time, Claudie Haignere, applauded the Soyuz agreement as “a commitment to a strategic alliance with Russia” on future launch vehicle designs.
The cooperation was to occur without any exchange of funds. ESA’s investment would be made as part of the agency’s Future Launchers Preparatory Program (FLPP).
ESA officials have said crafting a security agreement that would protect proprietary technology took longer than expected. Officials from the French space agency, CNES, also pointed to technology-transfer issues as one stumbling block in the French-Russian Oural program, which focuses on development of a liquid oxygen-methane engine and, longer-term, atmospheric re-entry demonstrator vehicles.
Jean-Marc Astorg, deputy director of CNES’s launcher directorate, said April 4 that the French-Russian Oural program is continuing as planned. A French-Russian security agreement relating to Oural was signed in 2006.
Astorg said that making Russia a full partner in ESA’s FLPP effort has been hampered by some European nations’ worries that having Russia fully engaged would reduce their role in Europe’s future-launcher work.
This would not be the first time that individual European governments’ concerns about their national industrial bases had stood in the way of a broader cooperation on rockets. Early this decade the French and U.S. governments, and their respective industries, had agreed to a joint development of a cryogenic upper stage to be jointly designed and manufactured and used interchangeably on U.S. and European rockets.
The deal was scuttled following German government opposition to the work-share distribution between U.S. and European industry.
“There is this problem of preserving equilibrium in Europe among the different ESA member states, and it has made it difficult to bring Russia into FLPP,” Astorg said. “Some of us would like to have Russia in FLPP.”
FLPP is budgeted at close to 300 million euros ($401 million) between 2006 and 2009 but much of this funding is being spent on continued development of a next-generation cryogenic upper-stage engine for Ariane 5.
The funding available for work on longer-term rocket designs is around 25 million euros per year.
Like France, the German government has maintained its own national future-launchers work. In 2005, the German Aerospace Center, DLR, flew an initial prototype of its Shefex — Sharp Edge Flight Experiment — on a suborbital mission from Norway’s Andoya Rocket Range.
Ludger Froebel, project director for Shefex, said April 4 that a second, longer-duration flight of a larger Shefex is planned in 2010, also from the Andoya facility, to test hypersonic-flight technologies. DLR, he said, has budgeted the mission at 10 million euros and has already allocated the funding. The 2005 flight, he said, was budgeted at nearly 4.2 million euros.
Astorg said CNES is interested in participating in Shefex. “We are impressed by how much they have been able to do with a relatively limited budget,” Astorg said.
DLR, CNES and the Italian Space Agency are maintaining their own future-launcher development programs to establish core competencies that will enable their industry to play significant roles once the time comes for a large ESA-coordinated effort.
Rossi said ESA meanwhile is continuing work on its Intermediate Experimental Vehicle, IXV, which could be ready for an orbital flight aboard a European Vega rocket in 2010. The vehicle would re-enter the atmosphere the same day.
“We believe IXV is complementary to Germany’s Shefex and we have had a good exchange of information with DLR about the respective activities,” Rossi said.