The French and Russian government officials meeting in Moscow Feb. 14 recommitted themselves to a five-year joint program whose ultimate goal is the development of a commonly designed heavy-lift rocket for commercial and government payloads that would be ready for service around 2020.

But French and European government officials said Euro-Russian work on future launchers continues to be hampered by Russian technology-transfer rules, which have become stricter and unpredictable in recent months.

“Something is going to have to be done about these regulations so that we can make progress, and I am hopeful that the government meeting in Moscow will permit the two sides to sign the needed legal protocols,” said Jean-Marc Astorg, deputy director of research and technology at the French space agency, CNES. “What we and industry need is a stable legal regime in which to work.”

Antonio Fabrizi, director of launchers at the European Space Agency (ESA), shared Astorg’s view. “We at ESA are working with Russia on a bilateral security agreement, which will be necessary for us to work together,” Fabrizi said Feb. 17. “But this is not an easy process.”

The French and Russian prime ministers and space-agency heads who met in Moscow agreed to pursue the Oural research and testing effort. While both sides initially decided in 2005 to work jointly on launchers, they had made little headway on the effort until recently. The goal of the Oural program is to investigate a wide range of engine and materials technologies that show promise for reducing the cost of a future launcher capable of lifting 7,000 kilograms into geostationary transfer orbit.

On the sidelines of the same meeting, Europe’s Arianespace launch consortium and the Russian space agency, Roskosmos, signed a contract for delivery of the first four Russian Soyuz rockets to be operated from Europe’s equatorial Guiana Space Center space port.

Operating Soyuz from the French Guiana site will permit the rocket to place telecommunications satellites weighing around 3,000 kilograms into geostationary orbit. The Soyuz launch facility is under construction well to the north of the current Ariane 5 rocket operations, and a first Soyuz launch is planned in late 2008.

The French-Russian Oural program has begun work test firing a new liquid oxygen-methane rocket engine, based on a modified version of the cryogenic engine that Russia sold India for India’s launch program. Atmospheric re-entry demonstrators as well as research on whether tomorrow’s rockets should be at least partly reusable to cut costs are also core Oural goals.

European industry officials have expressed skepticism about the program, saying it is unclear whether Russia, which is Europe’s biggest competitor in the commercial-launch business, is willing to pursue what would be a merger of the two regions’ rocket-development work.

But Astorg said that despite the slow start, Oural has lived up to its promise during its first year.

“Both sides are looking at a common launcher for around 2020, regardless of today’s competitive situation,” Astorg said Feb. 15. “There is a clear understanding in Russia and in France about what we are doing, and now we are integrating work going on elsewhere in Europe, too.”

Russia and France agreed that Oural would be managed in a way that all work in Russia is financed by Russia, with work in France financed by CNES. CNES has allocated 250 million euros ($298 million) for Oural over five years, with most of the spending to be incurred late in the program.

Oural, which is being coordinated with similar work under way at ESA and the German and Italian space agencies, has been given a stable budget since October, when Russia approved a multi year space-spending program that includes a bigger budget for Roskosmos.

The CNES budget also has been stabilized through 2010, with a government guarantee that it would not decrease.

ESA governments in December increased their Future Launcher Preparatory Program (FLPP) effort, agreeing to spend around 275 million euros between 2006 and 2009, compared to just 40 million euros in the past three years. Through CNES, France has agreed to take a 30-percent share of FLPP, which includes collaboration with Russia.

In a move that might ease the concerns of French industry officials that the French-Russian partnership might work to their disadvantage, CNES in late 2005 signed contracts with EADS Space Transportation and Safran’s Snecma rocket-component makers to ensure that these companies’ research teams would not disappear.

Fabrizi said that with the new FLPP financing, coordination among European governments — especially France, Germany and Italy — over future-launcher research has improved. “I think there are no serious overlaps in the various efforts,” Fabrizi said. “The various programs are coordinated.”

ESA’s legal team has not yet determined exactly how the security regime with Russia will be structured. Fabrizi said the agency expects that it will be able to sign the agreement on behalf of its member states, eliminating the need for each government to craft bilateral technology-transfer protocols with Russia.

Vyacheslav Davidenko, spokesman for the Russian space agency, Roskosmos, could not be reached for comment.