French Space Industry Exports Dipped in 2011

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PARIS — France’s space industry in 2011 posted revenue of 4.2 billion euros ($5.5 billion), about flat from 2010 as French exports dipped along with the global satellite telecommunications satellite market, the French aerospace industries association, GIFAS, said April 4.

France’s satellite and rocket manufacturers account for 50 percent of Europe’s total space revenue, and their financial results are heavily dependent on the commercial markets. Typically nearly two-thirds of French space sales are for commercial orders for either satellites — Thales Alenia Space and Astrium Satellites both have major French production facilities — or rockets sold by the Arianespace launch consortium of Evry, France.

The dip in commercial sales in 2011 meant that revenue was divided about equally between orders from France-based customers and those from outside of France.

The French space sector employs some 13,000 people, according to GIFAS.

In an April 4 briefing on the state of France’s aerospace sector, GIFAS President Jean-Paul Herteman, who is also chief executive of France’s Safran aircraft- and rocket-engine manufacturer, urged European governments to maintain European autonomy in key sectors including space launch vehicles.

Herteman said the need for autonomy has not changed since the 1970s, when European governments decided on the Ariane rocket program.

Herteman told his version of a story that is now repeated as gospel in Europe: The Ariane program, he said, was born following the insistence by U.S. government authorities in the mid-1970s that French and German telecommunications research satellites not be used for operational purposes.

Herteman went even further, saying the U.S. side had insisted that any intellectual property coming out of the European satellite program, called Symphonie, would be owned not by France and Germany, but by the United States as launch services provider.

NASA historian Steven Dick and NASA’s former European representative, Richard Barnes, in 2006 published their own account of what happened. Barnes labeled the version expressed by Herteman and others as “a myth.”

According to Barnes, NASA asked France and Germany only to abide by their commitments under the 1971 agreements governing the Intelsat international satellite organization, to which both nations were signatories, in return for launching their satellites aboard U.S. rockets.

Intelsat, which was concerned about protecting what was then a monopoly, had asked signatories to consult if a signatory satellite was going to provide operational telecommunications services and not just research. The U.S. policy on launch services reiterated the need for nations to take account of the Intelsat commitments.

France and Germany ultimately agreed to this, and the European satellites were launched aboard U.S. Delta rockets in 1974 and 1975. The Ariane rocket program, Barnes suggested, might have been accelerated because of the Symphonie episode, but likely would have gone forward no matter what.