SINGAPORE – France’s space minister on June 1 urged a redoubled European effort in space research, and specifically in next-generation rockets, in the face of what he said were increased investments by the United States and other major space powers.
Visiting the French and European space agencies’ merged launcher directorate in Paris, Thierry Mandon, who is responsible for space policy in the French Ministry of Education and Research, rejected the idea that SpaceX of the United States already had too far an advance in its rocket-reusability program to be matched by Europe.
Asked if Hawthorne, California-based SpaceX’s recent multiple successes in landing its Falcon 9 rocket’s first stage constituted a decisive step forward in the race to the future, Mandon said:
“They have achieved multiple successes in recovery, which is only the beginning of the process. Now they’ve got the stages back – very good. The next challenge is: How do you use them again? I don’t know if we’re too late, or behind, but I do know we need to move forward and Promethee – Prometheus – is a good way to go about this.”
What sometimes passes for French arrogance in translation is often an attempt by French officials to dispel fears – often expressed in the press here — that they are falling behind and that the game, in effect, is over.
This pervasive angst – not limited to Germany — after every SpaceX acrobatic display remains despite the examples in rocket history when today’s losers – Europe in the 1970s compared to the United States debuting the space shuttle – end up as winners as the shuttle was withdrawn from the commercial market that Europe’s Ariane came to dominate.
Mandon was referring to a reusable, liquid-oxygen, liquid-methane engine that France has been working on, called Promethee. France would like to Europeanize the effort, offering to subcontract major elements to Germany and other European partners in exchange for financial contributions.
Mandon’s calling the propulsion system both Promethee, French for Prometheus, and Prometheus presages a French effort this December to persuade European Space Agency governments to fund the new propulsion system.
Jean-Marc Astorg, director of launchers at the French space agency, CNES, said during the Mandon briefing that 5-7 Prometheus engines could power the first stage of a future Ariane rocket, each costing 1 million euros ($1.13 million) apiece, compared to the 10-million-euro cost of the single Vulcain cryogenic engine that now powers the Ariane 5 first stage along with two solid-fueled strap-on boosters.
Vulcain is powered by liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen.
The Ariane 6 rocket – designed to be one-half the cost of Ariane 5 – is on track to a 2020 launch. It will use a single Vulcain as well, with two or four solid-fueled boosters depending on mission requirements. Ariane 6’s second stage is powered by the Vinci engine, which is also fueled with liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen.
Astorg has said in the past that one of the things he most admires about the SpaceX Falcon 9 is its design simplicity and specifically its use of a single motor design for the first stage, which uses nine of them, and the second stage, which uses one. That feature alone helps SpaceX reduce costs.
Astorg said France is seeking support in Germany and other European governments for a three-year R&D effort, budgeted at 125 million euros, which would culminate in a prototype engine ready to test in 2019.
Given worries in Europe that Ariane 6 may already be yesterday’s story in the global market, Astorg stressed – as did Mandon and CNES President Jean-Yves Le Gall during the briefing – that Prometheus is an R&D program in parallel to, and not in competition with, Ariane 6 and the companion Vega C enhanced small-satellite vehicle.
Astorg said additive manufacturing and other technology-design improvements could cut in half, to five years, rocket propulsion development work that a decade ago would have taken 10 years.
Astorg said CNES and other Prometheus program officials would need to spend considerable time studying how the way liquid methane works in a propulsion system.
David Quancard, director of operations at Airbus Safran Launchers, the prime contractor for Ariane 5 and Ariane 6 and the likely leader of a next-generation rocket effort, said 50 percent of the cost of a rocket propulsion system lies in its industrial procedures.
Reducing production cycles, which Airbus Safran Launchers is already doing with Ariane 6, would be key to future launchers’ design as well, he said.