French Export Restrictions Snare Vega Flight Software

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BERLIN — French government technology-transfer restrictions have forced managers of Europe’s Vega rocket program to embark on an 11th-hour effort to develop new Vega flight-control software in Italy to replace the planned French system, according to European government and industry officials.

The French technology will be given an exemption from the normal export restrictions for use on Vega’s first flight, scheduled for early in 2011. Depending on whether the replacement flight control system being developed in Italy is ready, it may be used for the second flight as well.

But Italy’s ELV, which is prime contractor for Vega, will not be given details of the French technology’s makeup. That restriction was viewed as unacceptable by ELV, which is a joint venture between Avio of Colleferro, Italy, and the Italian Space Agency.

With the support of the 18-nation European Space Agency (ESA), ELV is investing in a new flight control system that will replace the French system, developed by Astrium Space Transportation of Les Mureaux, France.

ESA Director-General Jean-Jacques Dordain had referred to the technology transfer issue obliquely in early May, referring to unspecified “constraints” on ELV in the use of the technology that meant the prime contractor “is not in control.”

Arturo de Lillis, head of launch systems at the Italian Space Agency, said the unforeseen investment in the new system will not push the Vega program, which is already behind schedule, over its approved budget.

The technology-transfer restriction appears to have blindsided ESA, which is overseeing Vega development. The agency has grown accustomed to dealing with U.S. and, on occasion, Russian technology-transfer issues and has learned to work around them.

In a June 10 interview here at the Berlin air show, ILA 2010, ESA Launcher Director Antonio Fabrizi confirmed that, for now, Vega is within its approved budget. In ESA practice that means it has not exceeded its spending limit by more than 20 percent.

Fabrizi said the flight control software issue has caused ESA to insert into its general contract conditions with industry the requirement that industry receive any necessary technology export authorizations in time to meet the program’s overall schedule.

Fabrizi said he is not certain exactly what transpired in the case of the Vega flight-control system. Other French technology, in particular the filament-wound P-80 first stage, was subject to export approval and received authorization without a hitch.

“I have been told that it could have been a problem with the way the export license application was made, or its timing,” Fabrizi said. “Whatever the reasons, the solution we have come up with is that we will have a limited-visibility export license for the first Vega flight and Italy will develop new software for subsequent flights.”

Fabrizi said a final test of Vega’s Zefiro 9a third stage in late May using a new igniter was successful, with the additional costs needed to qualify this stage being absorbed by the already ESA-approved program covering Vega’s first flights. An overall review of the ground system for the launcher should be completed by July 7. The ground installations are nearing completion.

Vega’s launch campaign, to last three months, is on track to begin before the end of the year, with a first launch in early 2011, he said.