Europeans Struggle for Consensus on Launcher Development Strategy

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BAIKONUR COSMODROME, Kazakhstan — Europe’s launch-vehicle industrial base is heading into a period of turmoil as it introduces Russia’s Soyuz rocket into its ranks and struggles for consensus on whether limited resources should be spent improving the current Ariane 5 ECA heavy-lift rocket or preparing its successor, or both, European government and industry officials said.

The situation has been made more difficult by issues with the Ariane 5 quality control system that resulted in the cancellation of three launch campaigns since late 2009 because of a faulty helium pressurization component that likely will force the Arianespace launch consortium to report a loss for 2010.

The component in question, whose defect was traced to a change in production practice, has cost Evry, France-based Arianespace “tens of millions” of euros, Arianespace Chief Executive Jean-Yves Le Gall said Oct. 20. Arianespace markets and operates the Ariane 5 rocket.

The cost estimate takes into account the fact that Arianespace and its industrial contractors incurred many of the costs associated with three launch preparation campaigns, only to abort them because of the helium pressurization issue.

“In terms of costs, we have conducted six launch campaigns, even though we have launched only three times” in 2010, Le Gall said here after a Russian Soyuz rocket, marketed commercially by the French-Russian Starsem joint venture, lofted six mobile communications satellites for Globalstar Inc. of Milpitas, Calif.

Le Gall questioned whether the current launch industry practice of imposing only “best efforts” conditions on suppliers is sufficient, or whether penalties for defective products should be introduced.

The helium issue led Arianespace, the French space agency and the European Space Agency (ESA) to order an audit of Ariane 5 quality control. A separate audit was ordered by Astrium Space Transportation of Les Mureaux, France, which is the Ariane 5 prime contractor.

In an Oct. 18 statement, Astrium said its audit concluded that “maintaining competitiveness remained tenuous and needed to be better guaranteed.” The company said it has “stepped up its supervision of the program,” notably through the introduction of the Ariane Supply Chain Excellence Program begun in 2009.

Astrium Space Transportation Chief Executive Alain Charmeau said in an Oct. 18 statement that ESA government approval of the program called Ariane 5 Midlife Evolution, featuring a new upper stage, is needed “to reinforce the overall effectiveness and the robustness of the industrial chain … [and] adopt collective measures that reflect our firm commitment to reducing overall costs.”

ESA governments have postponed a conference to set budget and program strategy, meaning the Ariane 5 Midlife Evolution project is unlikely to enter into force — if it is approved — until 2013. The ESA conference of its 18 member governments had initially been scheduled for late 2010, then 2011, and now is unlikely before the second half of 2012, government officials said.

Astrium officials have said the Les Mureaux design bureau is badly in need of a new project now that the French M-51 ballistic missile and Europe’s space station components, notably the Automated Transfer Vehicle cargo freighter, have moved to full production phase. A new Ariane 5 upper stage would help keep engineers busy while waiting for the Ariane 5 successor. ESA’s launcher director, Antonio Fabrizi, has said the new upper stage, if approved, must be certain to result in no increase in Ariane 5 operating costs.

An Astrium spokesman on Oct. 21 said no company officials would be made available to elaborate on the conclusions of the Ariane 5 audit, or on specific proposals for the new Ariane 5 upper stage, whose cost has been estimated at about 2 billion euros ($2.8 billion).

The French government, Ariane’s biggest contributor, has not clearly indicated its support for the new upper stage, preferring to focus a public bond issue on beginning work on an Ariane 6 rocket that would, in some ways, resemble Russia’s current Proton rocket.

The Ariane 6, according to preliminary French studies, would be designed to carry one large telecommunications satellite at a time into geostationary orbit. The vehicle could be developed in different variants to carry lighter telecommunications satellites as well, possibly replacing the European version of Russia’s Soyuz, whose first launch from Europe’s Guiana Space Center spaceport is scheduled for the first half of 2011.

The German government, whose national industry stands to gain if the Ariane 5 is modified rather than replaced, has publicly expressed its reluctance to finance an Ariane 5 successor at this time.

Government and industry officials say it is still not clear whether the Ariane 5 upgrade would result in a dramatic performance increase over the current Ariane 5 ECA design, or whether there is any commercial market demand for it.

Meanwhile, the imminent introduction of the Soyuz rocket into Europe’s launcher stable will complicate the Ariane 5 program even as it broadens Arianespace’s product portfolio.

Launched from the equatorial Guiana Space Center in French Guiana, the Soyuz can place a 3,200-kilogram satellite into geostationary transfer orbit. These relatively light telecommunications satellites are now used to fill the manifest of larger satellites — 5,000 kilograms and more — that are Arianespace’s bread-and-butter customers. Launching two satellites at a time is essential to maintain the Ariane 5 system’s financial viability.

The market response to the European Soyuz from European governments and other customers has been greater than expected, Le Gall said.

 “We have 16 Ariane 5 rockets already booked,” he said. “That’s 32 satellites. But 14 of these satellites have been contracted for either a Soyuz or an Ariane 5. In addition to these, we have a manifest of 17 dedicated Soyuz launches from French Guiana. I don’t think anyone anticipated such a high demand for Soyuz, particularly for government satellites.”