Antonio Fabrizi, the Father of the Vega Rocket, Prepares To Take a Bow

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Profile | Antonio Fabrizi

Director, Adviser to the Director-General

European Space Agency


 

A New Era for Europe’s Rocket Sector

Call Antonio Fabrizi the father of Europe’s Vega small-satellite launcher and he waves you off. It may be common among mechanical engineers to shun the spotlight as an inefficient use of time.

But consider: Fabrizi in the late 1990s worked as head of launchers at the company now known as Avio, where he was involved in Vega’s early designs. Avio is now Vega’s industrial prime contractor.

From Avio, Fabrizi in 2003 moved to the European Space Agency, where he was director of launchers until mid-2014. During that period, Vega went from being the butt of countless French and German jokes to a vehicle whose market is now viewed as exceptionally promising.

During his ESA term, Fabrizi and ESA Director-General Jean-Jacques Dordain — who was director of launchers until 2003 — have guided the agency through a post-failure Ariane 5 crisis and through Vega’s financial struggles to its early launch successes.

The Vega rocket lifting off for its inaugural launch. Credit: Arianespace
The Vega rocket lifting off for its inaugural launch. Credit: Arianespace

For both men, the Dec. 2 council of ESA government ministers was, in the launcher sector, about as good as it gets: ESA will now develop an Ariane 6 rocket and an upgraded Vega that share solid-propellant stages and are scheduled to be operational by 2021 and 2018, respectively. Knowing a promising business model when it sees one, the German government in December became a Vega contributor.

Here’s another point Fabrizi doesn’t like to talk about: He’s Italian — OK, Italian European. But to have been an Italian during Vega’s decade of development, and to see the number of young Italian engineers that Vega pulled into the launcher sector, is no different from being French in the 1970s, when the first Ariane rockets were on the drawing boards.

Fabrizi is retiring — Dordain is too — in June. He spoke with SpaceNews staff writer Peter B. de Selding about Europe’s “Big Bang” in launchers, meaning significant changes in the relations between industry and government in developing and operating European rockets.


ESA’s December ministerial meeting OK’d funding for a new heavy-lift Ariane 6 rocket and an upgrade to the current Vega small-satellite launcher, with the condition that both be subjected to reviews in late 2016. What does this entail?

Our member states wanted to review progress at their next meeting. What will be validated is the work done in the previous two years. It should answer questions that are still open. We have been working for two years on Ariane 6 but mainly on a version that has been replaced with a new version, and which was just approved by our ministers. We’ve been working on this new configuration only for a few months, so there are things that need to be verified — especially the industrial organization. We didn’t have enough time to prepare this for the ministerial conference.

You mean the new industrial organization that will lead Ariane 6 development?

Yes, the joint venture between Airbus and Safran, Airbus Safran Launchers, needs to be consolidated. We have to see how it works. We need to make sure they will be ready to assume their new responsibilities. Two years should be enough to understand if everyone is correctly assuming the new roles or not.

Can contracts for Ariane 6 and the new Vega, called Vega-C, be let starting now even if 2016 calls for a government review?

Yes, contracts can be awarded. This will start early in 2015, when our Industrial Policy Committee will give us approval for placing a contract for Ariane 6. So we will have a procurement proposal based on a firm bid by industry, and then we shall have a contract.

We have seen some numbers already attached to industrial commitments on Ariane 6 costs and so forth. Are these binding?

Industry is committed. The commitment is broken down by company and system — not just the joint venture but other companies involved. For now we only have the commitment of the joint venture, meaning the prime contractor. Eventually we will need to include the propulsion companies.

Including Avio of Italy?

Including Avio. The propulsion companies are Safran, Herakles and Avio. Herakles and Safran are in the joint venture, so the only one remaining is Avio. So this is the bulk of the system. When you have the prime and the propulsion, it’s around 75-80 percent of the vehicle’s cost.

ESA is guaranteeing five launches per year for Ariane 6, any of which could be in the form of the full capacity of an Ariane 62 or half that of the larger Ariane 64, correct?

Yes.

And for these launches, ESA guarantees a certain per-launch price that includes today’s annual $120 million reimbursement for Ariane 5 exploitation costs?

Yes, this will be included in the price of each vehicle.

What about commercial launches, meaning non-European-government launches?

The joint venture does what it wants.

What happens if one of the first Ariane 6 rockets fails at launch — as happened with the first Ariane 5? Whose problem is that — industry’s or ESA’s?

That remains to be seen. It’s difficult to have one answer fitting all the possibilities. We have to first see what the cause is, and depending on that the responsibility can be shared — a kind of solidarity between the public and private sectors — depending on causes and consequences. This is what we refer to as a “major event” in our agreement with industry. After a major event, we have to sit down and discuss it.

The Airbus-Safran joint venture says it is assuming design authority for Ariane 6. What does that mean?

For me it means they are the owner of what they put in the market. They make the decisions, and they take the responsibility for how it is received in the market.

But if there’s a major event, and European governments don’t want to lose their access to space, then what?

If there is a major event that puts into question the survivability of the industry, then of course we will need to sit around a table and determine the best solution.

So this is a modified business model?

We have already proven the business model in some respects given the way we reached decisions at the December ministerial conference. Industry proposed the Ariane 6 configuration and put its influence on it. I think this is a first step to have them taking design-authority responsibility. It is a good step.

 

Ariane 6 artist's concept. Credit: CNES
Ariane 6 artist’s concept. Credit: CNES

Airbus and Safran in June announced their proposal for a new Ariane 6 design. The new design means the ESA-French space agency work over the preceding 18 months was scrapped, correct?

Yes. OK. But if this design is a better one? One of the points of the new organization, which I like, is that responsibilities are clear-cut. The public sector takes a role as a customer for development, but it is also in the driver’s seat for technology demonstrators. This is the sense of the fourth element of the declaration adopted by the ministers. Once technologies and demonstrators are proven, then industry is free to take over and make products for the market. So we see this kind of division of responsibilities.

This holds for Ariane 6 and Vega?

Yes. And in fact what is being developed is a launcher based on proven technologies.

The price advertised for future Ariane 64 customers is 45 million euros ($55 million) per satellite, assuming two atop a vehicle whose total commercial price would be 90 million euros. But ESA says this is the cost of building and launching an Ariane 64. So it’s built with no expected profit?

The profit will depend on what the market will allow. We assume there will be a profit, but this is for them to review their business model and make a pricing policy. It’s not so different from today: We can control the cost of an Ariane 5, but we don’t control the prices. We know what they are but we don’t influence them. Our annual exploitation cost support payments are part of how we help control the cost.

Will guaranteeing five European government payloads a year be difficult? Not all governments in Europe will commit to using Ariane all the time.

It’s true it’s difficult to get to a firm guarantee. ESA can decide its own satellites. Some member states, like France, are ready to guarantee that their satellites will be for Ariane only. Others cannot because they are bound by legislation to run competitions. So it’s not that easy today. But we have eight to 10 years to see how this guarantee can be played. The joint venture will rely, de facto, on this ESA-guaranteed market. But of course this is not ESA’s own market. It is a market from ESA, from France, from the European Commission, from Eumetsat and others. Whether this all can be put together into a single bowl, a single agreement, is uncertain. We have tried to do this in the past and it is not at all easy. So we need to work in the next few years to see if it can be done. It would make things much easier to consolidate these markets. Otherwise, the joint venture will have to strike agreements with each of these entities — the Italian government, the French, the EU and so on — with ESA’s help. ESA’s role will at least be to federate demand, which is what we can do today as well, try to standardize requirements and so on. We shall see in the future if we can go beyond that.

Can the European Commission guarantee it will use Ariane?

No. There may be reasons why they can provide comfort through a certain degree of preference, but not a guarantee.

Does the new European Commission know that U.S. government satellites must be launched on U.S. vehicles unless the satellites are part of bilateral programs?

We know this, of course, and I am hopeful that the European Commission will be more sensitive to this aspect so that Europe and the U.S. can be on equal footing in this respect.

What happens if there are less than five European government launches each year — for example, the first-generation Galileo navigation satellites might last much longer than predicted, delaying replenishment?

We’ll have to look at the circumstances. It’s important to see the advantage for everyone, even those who cannot commit, if we get together and then average out the demand. If we are in a single bowl, things will average and I don’t see a real problem. But if we go to single agreements, organization by organization with the launcher operator, then there will be more of a problem.

Isn’t five per year a stretch?

I don’t think so. Look at the way our member states are reacting so positively to making additional space investment even in this period of crisis. This is such an encouragement. There is clearly a wish to invest in this sector. Really, from where I sit today I do not see an issue with the five-per-year figure.

What role do the launcher directorates at ESA and the French space agency, CNES, have in the future?

Their responsibilities have not really changed. The practice may be different, but the directorates will have the responsibility for a kind of government marketing. We have contact with the member states, we promote our programs and we collect the funding. The implementation part is where we produce those things that member states want us to produce. This is essentially development. We’ll be more intrusive into what industry is doing in technologies and demonstrators, and less intrusive concerning the development of products for the market, which is left more in the hands of industry. We have already started to experiment with something like this with Vega, where we are relatively hands-off compared to what was done before with CNES for Ariane 5. Industry has more responsibility, more autonomy. Then there is the role to accompany the exploitation of the vehicles. This is where there may be some change. Today we control the costs by annual support payments, where necessary. If there is no more need of this — which is the objective of Ariane 6 — you may say there is no more need of that part of the directorate. But even there, there will always be a need to follow up on exploitation to make sure the cost objectives are met. And if we have a European market to federate, we shall need to be involved and to verify costs that are acceptable to everybody. So the way of doing things may change, but it won’t be dramatic.

Should we assume a lot fewer people will be working on Ariane 6, once it’s operational, compared with Ariane 5?

There may be fewer people in some places for launcher operations, but in terms of production, the joint venture may need more people to satisfy a growing market.

The earlier Ariane 6 design had a cryogenic upper stage over two identical solid-fueled lower stages and four solid-fueled strap-on boosters that were the same as the lower stages — in other words, six identical stages for each launch, generating scale economies. Is there enough scale potential in Ariane 6?

Let’s say three Vega launches per year, plus five Ariane 62 and six Ariane 64 launches. The Vega first stage and the Ariane 6 strap-on boosters are identical, so that gives you 37 stages per year.

But doesn’t Germany get to build a second Vega solid-stage production line given its investment in Vega at the ESA ministerial?

Germany has told us they think they can save some 30 percent in the cost of the stages with new technology. We will see if this is the case. This still needs to be proven. If there is a second production line this will reduce scale economies, but you will get a lower-cost technology and introduce competition with the Italian production line, which is not so bad.

As of now, Italy is saying Vega will not be part of the Ariane 6 joint venture. Will that be true over the long term?

It is difficult to say. In part it depends on the sale of Avio Spazio and the political impact this has depending on the buyer. [Avio, the industrial prime contractor for Vega, has been up for sale for more than two years.] If it is sold to the joint venture, that may change things. For now, Italy wants to keep control of Vega production.