Lengthy Ariane Standoff a Threat to European Space Program, OHB Says

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NAPLES, Italy — Satellite and rocket-component builder OHB of Germany on Oct. 3 warned that mounting German frustration with France about the future of Europe’s Ariane launch vehicle could undermine Europe’s space program if it is not resolved.

OHB Chief Executive Marco R. Fuchs said the German government’s decision to back an upgrade of the current heavy-lift Ariane 5 rocket instead of an immediate move toward a next-generation vehicle is not just a tactical move that can be traded away in negotiations with France.

The French government, whose position is not yet fixed, has said emerging threats to Ariane 5’s dominant position in the global commercial launch market argue in favor of investing the Ariane 5 upgrade money — about 1.4 billion euros ($1.8 billion) — into a new, lower-cost Ariane 6 that could be operational in 10 years.

The new vehicle would be designed to cost less from the start, with manufacturing and operating costs given higher priority than rocket performance.

Germany, France and the 18 other member governments of the European Space Agency (ESA) are scheduled to meet Nov. 20-21 in Caserta, Italy, to decide the issue as part of a package of ESA spending measures.

In an interview here during the 63rd International Astronautical Congress, Fuchs said Germany, which in the past has been an almost reluctant contributor to European launcher programs, is dead set on the Ariane 5 Midlife Evolution upgrade, or Ariane 5 ME.

“We in industry have been fighting for a decade to have launch vehicles viewed in Germany as a strategic interest, and finally the government has agreed. And it’s now that France proposes to scrap the program?” Fuchs said. “What has particularly bothered Germany is that its position on Ariane 5 ME is viewed as childish, short-term thinking focused only on industrial policy. It’s getting to where it provokes an almost emotional reaction. The reaction now is that if France wants Ariane 6, they can only get it if they go through Ariane 5 ME.”

ESA Director-General Jean-Jacques Dordain recently announced he favored starting work on Ariane 6 as soon as possible given Ariane 5’s tenuous hold on the commercial market.

Fuchs said German decision-makers agree that a move to a next-generation vehicle is necessary, but said the case for Ariane 6 is improved with Ariane 5 ME. This is especially true if Ariane 5 prime contractor Astrium Space Transportation makes good on its promise that Ariane 5 ME, with a 20 percent increase in payload-carrying capacity, to more than 11,000 kilograms into geostationary transfer orbit, will cost no more than the current Ariane 5 ECA vehicle.

Astrium has further promised ESA that at the end of Ariane 5 ME development in 2017, the vehicle’s revenue-generating ability will be so improved that it will no longer need the 120 million euros in support payments that European governments currently cover each year.

These support payments cover certain Ariane 5 fixed costs and permit Arianespace, Europe’s launch services provider, to balance its books.

OHB is not a disinterested party in the debate. The company’s MT Aerospace division builds Ariane 5 components and its work level on an Ariane 6 rocket is unknown but could well be reduced.

Fuchs said France and other European governments, which for years have lamented Germany’s lukewarm support for Ariane rockets, should seize the opportunity offered by Ariane 5 ME.

“The German contribution to Ariane 5 is somewhere around 20 percent of the total,” Fuchs said. “But in Ariane 5 ME Germany is proposing to take a 33 percent share. Yes, of course it’s true that Germany has significant industrial production interest in Ariane 5 work in Augsburg and Bremen. And preserving that industrial base is part of the story.”

OHB’s MT Aerospace is based in Augsburg. Astrium Space Transportation has a large production facility in Bremen.

Fuchs said the German government and German industry are more united in their view on Ariane 5 ME than they have been on just about any other space policy question in recent years.

Government and industry officials have said ESA is likely to agree to begin design work on Ariane 6 following the November meeting of its governments, with no development beginning until 2014.