Senior French Official Questions Future Need for Ariane 5

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PARIS — A change in the French government’s budget-approval process will force legislators to measure the success of French space policy and opens the once-taboo possibility that France could scuttle the Ariane 5 rocket in favor of reliance on Russia’s Soyuz vehicle, French government officials said.

Russia’s Soyuz rocket is expected to operate from Europe’s equatorial space port in Kourou, French Guiana, starting in late 2006 or early 2007.

“If Ariane is not competitive in 2009, there is the possibility that we could stop it,” said Jacques Serris, deputy director for technology at the French Education and Research Ministry, whose budget support accounts for most French space spending. “That’s one reason why we wanted Soyuz in Kourou — to be able to have an autonomous launch capability even if Ariane 5 is no longer there. Soyuz can launch our most-strategic satellites,” Serris said, apparently referring to reconnaissance satellites, which generally operate in low Earth orbit.

Serris’ comments here Dec. 15 at a conference on space policy organized by Prospace, a French industry lobbying group, created a stir in the audience, which included Ariane 5 component manufacturers. For these officials, abandoning Ariane 5 would be something akin to closing down France’s nuclear-deterrent force.

But Serris said that in an increasingly competitive and globalized world, no nation can afford to be self-sufficient in everything. The French parliament, whose space-program supervision is increasing, will set priorities for a limited budget.

“I know some in Europe say we should continue to back Ariane and pay whatever it costs,” Serris said. “I don’t share that view. If the people decide that our old view of strategic independence — a notion invoked to mean all manner of vague things — no longer applies, then we would have to accept that.”

The European Space Agency (ESA) has agreed to provide 223 million euros ($294 million) to adapt the Guiana Space Center facility to accommodate Soyuz launches.

The French government is covering nearly 60 percent of ESA’s investment. The Arianespace commercial launch consortium of Evry, France, is paying an additional 121 million euros to Russian hardware contractors through a low-interest loan provided by the European Investment Bank. Arianespace is expected to repay the loan over a decade from profits resulting from Soyuz launches.

The last obstacle to the program was cleared Dec. 10 when the French parliament agreed to provide a loan guarantee.

The French government persuaded its ESA partners to adopt the Soyuz by arguing that the vehicle would complement the heavy-lift Ariane 5 and the small Italian-led Vega rocket , now in development. Soyuz would enable European military authorities and others to launch Earth observation satellites into low Earth orbit without being forced to pay for an entire Ariane 5 rocket.

And when operated from the equatorial facility, Soyuz also will be able to launch small telecommunications satellites into geostationary transfer orbit.

Francois Maroquene, vice president for sales at Starsem of Paris, the French-Russian company that markets Soyuz commercially, said the first variant to be launched from Europe’s spaceport would be capable of placing satellites weighing up to 2,900 kilograms into geostationary transfer orbit. An upgraded version, called Soyuz 2-1b, will be able to place up to 3,200 kilograms into the same orbit, Maroquene said.

Charles de Lauzun, deputy space director at the French arms-procurement agency, DGA, said he preferred “a more nuanced” assessment of France’s strategic need for its own launcher. Noting that Soyuz cannot carry heavy telecommunications satellites to geostationary transfer orbit, de Lauzun said Soyuz was incapable of handling the current and future military space needs of France and Europe.

Other officials said this is true only for the initial Soyuz variants. Future versions, perhaps including a cryogenic upper stage borrowed from current and previous Ariane rockets, could increase Soyuz’s capacity to around 4,000 kilograms to geostationary-transfer orbit, these officials said.

It is this possibility, and the continuing financial strain on Europe’s space budget caused by the Ariane 5, that is behind comments made publicly by Serris but privately by others.

The Ariane 5 variant expected to maintain Europe’s place in the global commercial-launch market is still not proven. It failed in its inaugural flight in December 2002 and has since been subjected to a costly review. The vehicle is currently scheduled to make a demonstration launch in February.

To preserve the financial viability of Arianespace and the Ariane 5, European governments have agreed to pay 960 million euros over five years to guarantee a minimum revenue stream for the company and to offset some of its fixed costs. This support package expires in 2009.

Starting in 2006, the French parliament will have line-item review authority over France’s space budget, which is to be divided into six categories. Each will have its own performance criteria, including the value of French satellite-technology exports, the number of patents received, Arianespace’s market share and other metrics.

Serris said that if Ariane 5 has not established itself profitably by then, French legislators could decide to scrap the program while retaining Europe’s autonomous access to space — albeit with hefty Russian support — via Soyuz.

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