Elzbieta Bienkowska, the European Commission’s lead space commissioner, speaking April 5 at the 33rd Space Symposium. Credit: Tom Kimmell

This article was updated April 6, 2017 at 12:14 p.m. MT

COLORADO SPRINGS — The European Commission will commit to regularly buying Ariane 6 and Vega C launches when both rockets are in operation, Elzbieta Bienkowska, the European Commission’s lead space commissioner, said Wednesday.

“We will aggregate our institutional launches to support those two launchers,” she said.

In a brief conversation with SpaceNews after her speech, Bienkowska said this aggregated demand would support the annual five Ariane 6 and two Vega C launches that Ariane 6 prime contractor Airbus Safran Launchers and launch provider Arianespace have pegged as the needed quantity to close the business case for both vehicles.

On April 6, Fabrice Comptour, a member of Bienkowska’s cabinet, walked back the commissioner’s comments, saying the European Commission’s procurement rules don’t allow guaranteeing a specific number of launches, but that the commission will help ensure the economic viability of Ariane 6 and Vega C.

“With up to 30 satellites to launch over the next 15 years, the EU will partly ensure the economic viability of the European launchers Ariane 6 and Vega C,” Bienkowska told SpaceNews in a written statement April 6.

Ariane 6 is the successor to the Ariane 5 and Europeanized Soyuz. Vega C is an improved version of Vega that uses the same first-stage engine as Ariane 6’s strap-on boosters. The rockets are scheduled for first launches in 2020 and 2019, respectively.

Bienkowska also said Europe’s confidence in the suitability of Ariane 6 and Vega C, both of which are single-use rockets, remains unshaken by the early success of SpaceX and Blue Origin in demonstrating their reusable rockets.

“We observe very closely the ongoing revolution in the launcher market, especially here in the United States, around the principle of reusability,” she said. “Europe’s answer is the development of the next-generation of cost effective, reliable and competitive European launchers: Ariane 6 and Vega C.”

Leveling the playing field

Europe has long envied the large number of government launches provided to domestic launch entities in the United States and in Russia — home to Arianespace’s two biggest competitors: Hawthorne, California-based SpaceX and Moscow-based Khrunichev.

For the past three years, SpaceX has performed two to three launches annually for U.S. government customers, mainly NASA, and is starting to win military launch contracts following Air Force certification in 2015. Prior to certification, the Boeing-Lockheed Martin joint venture United Launch Alliance conducted nearly all U.S. military launches, often close to 10 per year, as well as some civil and commercial launches. Russia’s Proton launches have been roughly half government, half commercial through Khrunichev’s International Launch Services subsidiary.

“We are competing with launchers which are mostly dedicated to their domestic markets, which is a significant advantage, markets that most of the time are closed to other launchers,” Arianespace CEO Stephane Israel told SpaceNews last month. “So it is absolutely normal that we organize institutional launches around European launchers.”

“It is important, even vital for Ariane 6 and Vega C, to have this commitment from formal  European institutions,” he added.

Israel said European government launches, at 1.4 billion euros ($1.5 billion), account for less than a third of Arianespace’s 5-billion-euro contract backlog.  The U.S. launch market, according to Airbus Safran Launchers, is about 65-percent government demand. For  Russia’s launch industry, the figure is closer to 76 percent.

Israel said a guarantee of annual launches would replace the roughly 100-million-euros-a-year Arianespace receives under Europe’s Launchers Exploitation Accompaniment Programme to keep Ariane 5 in service.

Caleb Henry is a former SpaceNews staff writer covering satellites, telecom and launch. He previously worked for Via Satellite and NewSpace Global.He earned a bachelor’s degree in political science along with a minor in astronomy from...