PARIS — France is undecided about whether European Space Agency (ESA) governments should invest 1 billion euros ($1.4 billion) in an upgraded Ariane 5 rocket when they meet in 11 months or put this investment into an Ariane 5 successor vehicle instead, a senior French space agency official said Dec. 6.

The comments by Thierry Duquesne, deputy director for strategy and programs at the French space agency, CNES, echo statements made in October by French Research Minister Laurent Wauquiez.

They suggest that despite continued German government pressure that the Ariane 5 upgrade be supported, French officials are not certain that at a time of enormous pressure on public budgets, the upgrade — called the Ariane 5 Mid-life Evolution, or Ariane 5 ME — is the way to go.

“This remains an open question,” Duquesne said here during a conference on European space policy options organized by Euroconsult. “Maintaining [Europe’s] autonomous access to space is not just a matter of development. It’s a question of what developments can be sustained.”

The Ariane 5 ME project was given initial funding in 2008 to complete development by Snecma Moteurs of France of the Vinci restartable engine, which when integrated into a new Ariane 5 upper stage will permit the rocket to increase its payload-carrying capacity by about 20 percent for no extra cost when measured in price per kilogram.

Astrium Space Transportation, which has been pushing for the program’s full approval at the planned late-2012 conference of ESA space ministers, on Dec. 1 issued an unusual public statement on the project, saying it has completed the preliminary design review and demonstrated its performance.

“The added value generated by Astrium’s unique role as end-to-end prime contractor for Ariane 5 since 2003 will allow the company to drive down costs,” the statement said.

The Ariane 5 ME’s main goal is to permit Ariane 5 to broaden its market appeal by offering to place different satellites into different orbits in a single launch by virtue of the restartable Vinci engine. The Ariane 5 ME rocket, Astrium has said, will be no more expensive to build or operate than the current Ariane 5 ECA vehicle, but will be able to carry 20 percent more payload.

Duquesne did not dispute these claims, but said France and other European governments are looking not only at the vehicle’s performance but at the entire end-to-end cost of operating and maintaining Ariane 5.

The Arianespace commercial launch consortium of Evry, France, has been forced to stop and restart several launch campaigns in the past two years because of hiccups not on the Ariane 5 rocket, but in the complex network of electrical and fluid lines that are part of the Ariane 5 launch system.

A panel of French government experts convened by French Prime Minister Francois Fillon concluded that the next-generation Ariane rocket should be a modular vehicle designed to carry one satellite at a time, weighing between 3,000 and 8,000 kilograms, into the geostationary orbit used by most telecommunications satellites.

In a Nov. 29 speech celebrating CNES’s 50th anniversary, Fillon — who is a former French space minister — said the next-generation rocket should be in service by 2025. A French government bond issue designed to stimulate the economy has reserved about 250 million euros for preliminary design work on the vehicle. Fillon did not mention Ariane 5 ME.

“Let’s be clear,” Fillon said. “The economic model that permitted Europe to gain its independence in space is now destabilized by the crisis and by the necessity of controlling public budgets for a prolonged period.”

Duquesne said the decision on whether to pursue Ariane 5 ME or proceed directly to work on the next-generation vehicle will depend in part on how much investment other ESA governments are willing to make in the launcher sector when they meet in late 2012.

The ESA ministerial meeting, tentatively set for November, is likely to debate an ongoing financial support package for Arianespace, whose profitability in 2010 and 2011 has been compromised in part because of the cost of operating the Ariane 5 launch installation despite the rocket’s success. The vehicle has conducted 46 consecutive successful launches.

Germany has been among the most vocal European governments in insisting that Ariane 5 costs be aligned with the vehicle’s revenue, which means Arianespace’s business model is highly dependent on prevailing global commercial launch prices.

Rolf Densing, director of space programs at Germany’s space agency, DLR, expressed frustration that despite nearly two years of work by government and industry officials looking for ways to cut Ariane 5’s overall costs, few savings have been found.

“We negotiated with our monopolistic [rocket] industry to make space more affordable,” Densing said during the Dec. 6 conference. “But despite all this work we have only been able to find 1 or 2 percent in savings.”

Densing nonetheless reiterated long-standing German government policy that the Ariane 5 ME program, which was endorsed in 2010 by the French and German heads of state at a bilateral summit, be approved in 2012. This endorsement, he said, “in my mind makes it obvious” that Ariane 5 ME should be fully adopted by ESA governments.

Densing said he shares the concerns of those who would like to proceed with a wholesale revamping of the Ariane program.

“I understand the frustration people have with the current Ariane system, because it is very expensive,” Densing said. “We want to launch satellites. We are not here to launch launchers. But the ME project’s purpose is to make launches more affordable.”



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