Making a Difference – Stefano Bianchi, Vega Program Manager, European Space Agency

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If luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity, then the builders of Europe’s newest rocket — Vega — are fortunate that development of the small-satellite launcher took as long as it did.

First proposed to the European Space Agency (ESA) by Italy in 1998, work on the three-stage solid-rocket booster did not begin in earnest until 2003. Some nine years later — Feb. 13, 2012, to be exact — Vega lifted off from Europe’s Guiana Space Center in French Guiana on a qualification flight that was just about perfect. Notably, it was by no means the simplest of inaugural missions: A total of nine payloads were dropped off in two different orbits.

The timing of Vega’s debut could not have been much better. The rocket is arriving to market just as small-satellite owners are reeling from rapidly rising prices for Russian and Ukrainian vehicles and a new reluctance on the part of the Russian military to convert its stockpile of Soviet-era ballistic missiles for space launch.

Ironically, it was the growing availability of low-cost Russian and Ukrainian ICBMs during Vega’s early development that caused the ESA rocket’s backers to worry that Vega’s original commercial price point of 21 million euros — nearly $26 million in today’s dollars — would not be competitive.

Thanks to Italy’s determination and the leadership of ESA’s Vega program manager, Stefano Bianchi, Europe is introducing a small-satellite launcher that even at its current 32 million-euro commercial price point should be able to compete in the marketplace.

The Vega vehicle still has a ways to go to prove itself and get its price down, but the first flight was a good start.