The decision-makers in Europe are chasing a white rabbit in seeking a reliable launch vehicle that also pleases all stakeholders: governments (jobs, industrial know-how), international customers (low cost, reliability) and the European Space Agency’s principle of fair distribution of work.
In an attempt to satisfy these contradicting aspects, ESA has made concessions by liberating the Ariane 6 program from its geographic return principle and thus allowed industry to concentrate development work in the Airbus Safran Launchers joint venture. ESA further guaranteed to buy at least five launches on Ariane 6 per year to guarantee minimum revenue for the launcher.
It is assumed that these steps will successfully close the prize gap to new launch service providers and will set Europe up for the future space environment. However, industrial leaders are still struggling to come up with a closing business case.
The situation is a symptom of a more fundamental issue: Europe’s primary driver for major aerospace projects is not cost and efficiency alone but also includes social and political aspects (such as jobs and work distribution), which are conflicting with each other.
Today, this leads to a situation where Europe’s way of conducting major aerospace projects becomes unsuitable for development of the next launch vehicle that is expected to match competitor prices. This is not because Europe wouldn’t be able to build a capable launch vehicle but because the competitors’ way of operation has progressed and that allows them to operate at a lower cost.
Instead of tweaking details on the Ariane 6 project in hopes to make it meet the impossible goals set up for it, Europe needs to address its motivation to develop a domestic space launch capability. Leading this discussion would allow Europe to approach the setup of a successful Ariane 6 program in a more transparent and successful way.
Naturally, the setup of the Ariane 6 program is inspired by previous European launcher development programs and this approach yields more considerations besides efficiency and thus competitiveness. Jobs need to be created and retained, everybody on the political stage wants a spot in the sunlight of a successful program, and industry wants to earn money. Satisfying these contradicting aspects is possible but at an increased cost.
What is more, this approach was competitive in the last decades because all the other launch providers in the world were operating under the same constraints. Times have changed, though, and the approach has lost its applicability with the massive influx of private money into the space sector and the surge of new commercial companies entering the space arena, commonly referred to as “newspace.” These companies can deliver hardware to orbit at a significantly lower cost and the traditional companies no longer can compete while also satisfying political motives.
Before newspace, the launch sector was stable and no substantial progress had been made since the introduction of the space shuttle 30 years ago. The primary funding source was secure government contracts that did not encourage risky development of new launch technologies. Cost was not the primary consideration for traditional programs that were based on the careful balance between politics, performance and geographical distribution.
The entrance of private companies with radically streamlined design, manufacturing and operational processes upset this situation, and the new companies readily outcompete companies set up to strive in the pre-newspace world. The conservative funding situation for the traditional companies such as United Launch Alliance and Arianespace explains how they were taken by surprise when SpaceX became one of the leading international launch service providers within 10 years of its founding and with yet more potential to increase efficiency.
To illustrate the lack of efficiency in a policy driven industry, one can consider the development costs of the Ariane 6 and SpaceX’s Falcon 9. Ariane 6 is meant to save cost by utilizing heritage hardware resulting in a projected development cost of about $4 billion. In contrast, SpaceX states that Falcon 9 required an investment of less than $400 million (including Falcon 1) to develop from scratch. Even when allowing for some uncertainties in these numbers, it is obvious that cost has not been the only or first consideration in the development history of Ariane 6.
Currently, the Ariane 6 development program is strongly inspired by previous launcher development programs, and political motives such as the distribution of responsibility and work influence the process. It is clear that the effort to meet current Ariane 6 goals is futile because they ask to fulfill contradicting aims. The development as well as operations of Ariane 6 will not be able to compete with international competitors if political motives drive a significant portion of the program.
So if it is clear that Ariane 6 will not meet its current goals because it won’t be competitive and will only benefit the job markets in Germany and France, why should Europe continue to invest in the development and operations of Ariane 6? After all, Europe could launch its satellites with foreign providers that can do the job as reliably and cheaper.
The answer is that Ariane 6 guarantees Europe’s access to space. While rarely being stated in the public discussion surrounding Ariane 6, this is the prime motivation for all these efforts. As such, it should be of high value to Europe and is a good reason in itself to develop the next-generation European launcher.
Once Europe accepts this paradigm, a more transparent discussion can be opened and more honest goals can be formulated for Ariane 6. Once it is clear that Europe wants Ariane 6 simply because it is European and that Europe is willing to pay a premium for this commodity, two options for its realization open up:
1. Paying financially: For this option, Europe needs to accept that it will not be able to conduct space activities as efficient as a purely commercial company. This means Europe needs to accept that Ariane will not be competitive without subsidies. However, guaranteeing European access to space as well as maintaining technological know-how among European countries are worthy causes by themselves to pay for the cost difference.
2. Paying politically: For this option, European politics needs to completely step back from the development of Ariane 6. Furthermore, it would support the concentration of launcher development and manufacturing know-how in one region to facilitate streamlined operations and efficiency as the primary driver. In this case, Europe needs to accept that jobs will be lost and know-how will be concentrated in one region. Even though only a small region of Europe would actively build Ariane 6, the vehicle would still be a European product. The expertise available in Europe is definitely capable of answering to a competitive market if not restrained.
With the concentration of work in France and Germany as well as the omission of the geographic return principle, current efforts seem to pursue option two. Historically, this is a very unnatural route to go for Europe and only possible through the shock that SpaceX sent through the launcher sector. Furthermore, this path needs to be followed very radically in order to be successful.
However, the design history, the projected development cost as well as recent quarrels between ESA and industry show that Ariane 6 is still very much influenced by politics. The current effort will ultimately lead back to option one because Ariane 6 will not be able to self-sufficiently compete on the international market.
It might appear more painful at first but the ultimately easier and more transparent route to follow might be to accept that Europe is prepared to pay a premium for its autonomous access to space.
Clemens Rumpf is a researcher at the University of Southampton in the U.K. on the topic of planetary defense. He has previously worked at DLR and Airbus DS in Germany as well as ESA in the Netherlands.