The French and Russian space agencies have signed a five-year cooperation agreement on future-launcher technologies, including flight demonstrators, in which France will invest 200 million euros ($266 million).

For French officials, the program ultimately should lead to a merging of rocket-development efforts in Europe and Russia as part of a commercial-market rationalization. Europe’s Ariane 5 rocket now competes with Russia’s Proton-M vehicle and with the Russian-Ukrainian Sea Launch rocket, both of which are marketed by U.S. companies.

The agreement between the French space agency, CNES, and Russia’s Roskosmos was signed March 15 by CNES President Yannick d’Escatha and Roskosmos Director-General Anatoly Perminov. It the latest example of an individual European nation investing in work that is also the subject of a separately financed program run by the European Space Agency (ESA).

The French-Russian Oural (Ural) effort will cover much of the same ground as ESA’s Future Launcher Preparatory Program. ESA and Roskosmos signed a future-launcher technology development agreement in January.

But the ESA program is funded at just 40 million euros over three years and is scheduled for completion in early 2006. The agency expects to propose a much larger multi-year effort to its governments this December at a scheduled conference of European space ministers.

Michel Eymard, director of the launcher directorate at CNES, said the Oural program will be coordinated with ESA’s work to assure that duplication is kept to a minimum, even if the CNES and ESA efforts feature virtually identical sets of industrial and government-agency partners.

“The idea is to avoid a single line of thinking,” Eymard said March 14 at a press briefing here. “We are so early in the work on future launchers that we need to look broadly at different technologies, different structures. Also, we at the government-agency level need to form our own opinions on the subject, independent of industry’s view.”

Eymard said the separate CNES and ESA dealings with Russia eventually should merge into a single program — but only after a consensus emerges on the technologies and vehicle configurations that should be developed.

Eymard and Jean-Marc Astorg, CNES deputy director for research and technology, said CNES remains uncertain over whether the overriding goal of its launcher research — reducing by at least 50 percent the cost of placing hardware in orbit — can best be served by fully or partially reusable rockets, or evolved expendable vehicles.

Antonio Fabrizi, ESA’s launcher director, said Germany and Italy also continue to work on future-launcher technologies on their own, even though both governments, like France, are participating in the ESA work. “The ESA work should not be considered as exclusive,” he said March 16. “We have established working groups to avoid duplication so that we don’t end up re inventing the wheel three times in Europe.”

In addition to wanting to explore the widest possible number of technology options, CNES has a special incentive to maintain its own, separate links to Russia in launcher work.

As Europe’s principal designer and financier of the Ariane rocket series, CNES maintains a launcher-directorate work force totaling 300. For the first time in 30 years, these research and design teams are not working on anything in particular.

CNES launcher teams have been moved from one Ariane version to another without a gap since the mid-1970s.

“What we have now is a problem of how to maintain our core competencies in cryogenic propulsion and system design,” Eymard said. “The partnership with Russia is a priority. The long-term vision is to develop a common launcher to reduce the number of systems in operation and thus reduce the overcapacity in the market.”

The Oural program will focus on a cryogenic fuel tank, called Structure-X, with thermal protection for atmospheric re-entry; an oxygen/methane engine called Volga; and an atmospheric re-entry glider called Pre-X.

Eymard said the agreement with Russia provides that, as a general rule, there will be no exchange of funds.

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