More than six years after its initial refusal to have

any involvement in the development of the Italian-led Vega small-satellite launch vehicle, the German government is having second thoughts.

The German Aerospace Center, DLR, has awarded an 18-month study contract to Astrium Space Transportation of Bremen, Germany, to look into designs for an improved Vega upper stage.

Valued at just 500,000 euros ($692

), the study will not automatically lead to a hardware-development contract. But German government and industry officials said the decision

sends clear messages to their European Space Agency (

ESA) partners, who

now are building Vega; and to the Russian and Ukrainian rocket builders that have been providing regular launches of German government satellites.

Officials said the message to ESA is that Germany now accepts an idea long held by France and, to a lesser extent

Italy, that European independence in launch vehicles is of strategic importance.

The message being sent to Russia and Ukraine

is that Germany will not accept rapidly rising prices and technology-transfer hurdles that increasingly have been coming into play with

these once-inexpensive launch services.

Kranz, a program manager in DLR’s launcher directorate, said Germany’s move

also was prompted out of concern that Russia and Ukraine are not moving to replace their Rockot, Cosmos and Dnepr launch vehicles.

“We know that Cosmos is being phased out, but for Rockot and Dnepr, which are former strategic missiles, the situation is not clear,” Kranz said in a July 24 interview. “For Rockot, we ask about the supply and are sometimes told, ‘There is enough for another couple of years.’ We don’t know what that means.”

Like Britain, Germany

often has been

hesitant to finance European rocket programs. When Italy insisted that ESA approve Vega’s development in 2000, both France and Germany declined to participate. France eventually bowed to Italian pressure and is responsible for one of the Vega rocket’s four stages.

Germany held out. In part because Germany – through the European Ariane rocket program – has developed experience in storable-propellant rocket upper stages, ESA was obliged to contract with Ukraine’s NPO Yuzhnoye to provide the Avum – Attitude Control and Vernier Upper Module – upper stage for Vega.

Vega is now in development and is scheduled to make its first launch in mid-2008.

Instead of investing in Vega, Germany and Astrium entered into a joint venture with the Russian government-controlled Khrunichev Space Center of Moscow to commercialize the Rockot vehicle. Eurockot Launch Services GmbH, located in Bremen, markets Rockot outside the former Soviet Union and has booked several contracts with ESA.

Stamerjohans, head of launchers at Astrium Space Transportation, is a former chief executive of Eurockot. In a July 24 interview, Stamerjohans said the DLR contract should not be considered

a dismissal of the German-Russian joint venture.

“I am still on the board of Eurockot and we continue to believe in the company,” Stamerjohans said. “But sooner or later there will be a material end to the supply of these former ballistic missiles, and we need to prepare for the future. European governments have clearly stated their preference for Vega as a European launch vehicle, and we say that if that’s the case then it should be fully European – including the upper stage.”

Stamerjohans said that Russian government authorities, like the U.S. government, have made it increasingly difficult to do launcher-related business because of technology-transfer and other concerns.

“Russia is taking a route similar to the United States – a big country with plenty of resources that wants to limit the transfer of technology,” Stamerjohans said. “It’s something that big countries like this can do. It’s nothing unusual. But it does mean that it’s getting more difficult” to do rocket-related business there.

ESA and the Italian Space Agency have been investigating several all-European Vega upper-stage designs, including a motor powered by liquid oxygen and methane, as part of a program called Lyra.


said the German agency does not expect ESA to approve a new upper stage for Vega at a conference of European space ministers scheduled in late 2008. “First we need to see the current version of Vega demonstrated in flight,” Kranz said. “Before that happens, we will not be in a position to start proposing modifications.”


launched its TerraSAR-X Earth observation satellite June 15 aboard a Ukrainian Dnepr rocket from Russia’s BaikonurCosmodrome in Kazakhstan after months of delays caused by a Russian-Kazakh debate over responsibility for launcher debris in Kazakhstan.

“This was something totally beyond our control,” Kranz said. “So there is a reason to start thinking about an independent access to space.”

Stamerjohans said the DLR contract with Astrium could

have a secondary benefit: “It might serve notice to our Russian partners that they are not alone in the business, and this could be helpful.”