PARIS — France and Germany have agreed to establish two working groups to resolve their differences over the future of the Ariane 5 rocket and Europe’s role in the international space station.

Both groups are scheduled to reach their conclusions by June 30, in time to inform French and German positions before a November conference of ministers from the 19-nation European Space Agency (ESA). The conference, held every three or four years, sets Europe’s medium-term space budget and policy direction.

A conflict between France and Germany, ESA’s two biggest contributors, over core ESA programs would threaten to destabilize a conference that already is faced with the stress of Europe’s government debt crisis.

Following a Feb. 6 meeting in Paris of the two governments’ council of ministers, the French and German ministers responsible for space policy issued a statement that reflects the two sides’ disagreements.

The document is notable for the fact that France appears to be using historically German arguments — that the heavy-lift Ariane 5 rocket’s costs need to come down — to counter Germany’s backing of an Ariane 5 upgrade. France would prefer to skip the upgrade and to start work immediately on an Ariane 5 successor.

“Given the current situation, it is necessary to establish a coherent, stable and affordable framework for public-sector support for the current launch vehicles developed by ESA to improve their competitiveness,” the document says.

“This support must be reduced in parallel with a change in governance, and a greater transparency, in the activities of all the enterprises involved in the operations of European launchers. The goal is to reduce their costs and increase the amount of risk assumed by industry.”

Johann-Dietrich Woerner, chairman of the German Aerospace Center, DLR, acknowledged the irony of the fact that France, and not Germany, is now leading the critique of the operating costs of Ariane 5.

“The emphasis on cost reduction was actually the French mark-up of the document,” Woerner said in a Feb. 8 interview. He said Germany hopes that the Ariane 5 Mid-life Extension (Ariane 5 ME) project will at least partially resolve the current cost issues surrounding Ariane 5.

“As a scientist I always try to be open-minded,” Woerner said. “The launcher itself is not the end product, and we do not develop launchers to support a launcher industry. We want autonomous access to space in Europe to launch our payloads. The question is, what launcher is best suited to that? As of today we see Ariane 5 ME as the best solution but we are ready to discuss all arguments.”

In an attempt to position Ariane 5 ME as a cost-saving project, Ariane 5 prime contractor Astrium has said the upgrade — which features a restartable upper stage engine and a 20 percent boost in Ariane 5 performance — could allow ESA to eliminate the Ariane 5 price supports.

ESA governments now pay about 120 million euros ($158 million) per year to the Arianespace launch consortium of Evry, France, to offset fixed costs in Ariane 5 production and permit Arianespace to avoid financial losses.

Woerner said he did not give much credence to these promises so long as they are not accompanied by industry commitments to assume the costs on its own.

Early French designs of an Ariane 5 successor rocket show a vehicle of modular design that could place telecommunications satellites weighing between 3,000 and 8,000 kilograms into geostationary transfer orbit, the destination of most commercial spacecraft.

The vehicle would replace both the heavy-lift Ariane 5 and the medium-lift Russian Soyuz rocket, which now operates alongside Ariane 5 at Europe’s Guiana Space Center spaceport in South America.

The Ariane 5 successor, now called the Next-Generation Launcher (NGL), would lift satellites one at a time and be designed from the start to be much less dependent on the commercial satellite market to meet its costs, and much less costly to operate.


Space Station Bartering

On the international space station, meanwhile, France is arguing that Europe’s future dues to NASA for station utilities charges should be paid through a barter arrangement in which Europe provides a new, multipurpose robotic vehicle that could remove dead satellites from orbit, and ferry to Earth Mars samples left in Mars orbit from future robotic missions.

NASA has proposed that Europe’s station dues, amounting to about 450 million euros between 2017 and 2020, be used to finance a propulsion system for NASA’s Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle.

Woerner said Germany does not have a firm opinion either way at this point. He cautioned that whatever “barter element” is selected must be approved by NASA. A unified Franco-German position, he said, would be more likely to win NASA approval.



Astrium Chief Presses His Case for New Ariane 5 Upper Stage

France Undecided on Ariane 5 Investment Question

Arianespace is Rethinking its Dual-Launch Strategy 

Peter B. de Selding was the Paris bureau chief for SpaceNews.