Several hundred rocket scientists whose work on the redesigned Vulcain main-stage Ariane 5 engine is about complete could lose their jobs unless European governments quickly decide on a new launch vehicle research effort, according to officials with Snecma, the Vulcain’s prime contractor.

Echoing comments made by Ariane 5 prime contractor EADS Space, Snecma managers said Vulcain-2 design teams will be closing down operations by mid-year following the successful Feb. 12 flight of the Vulcain-2 main stage aboard the Ariane 5 ECA rocket.

Some 1,150 people are now working on Ariane 5 cryogenic engines here, down from a peak of 1,700 in the late 1990s, when the now-retired Ariane 4 rocket carried more Snecma engines, and launched more frequently, than the larger Ariane 5 .

Snecma is under contract to EADS Space and the Arianespace launch consortium to produce 30 Vulcain engines in the next five years as part of a 30-rocket order, valued at 3 billion euros ($3.9 billion), that Arianespace placed with European industry.

Full-scale production of the Vulcain-2 engine has begun here and will continue at a rate of five or six units per year, depending on Arianespace’s ability to win launch contracts.

That guarantees work for the manufacturing side of Snecma. The company held a ceremony here April 4 with European Space Agency (ESA) and French government officials to celebrate the start of full production of the Vulcain-2 engine.

But the Snecma Vulcain-2 design teams have less reason to celebrate. With European governments still unsure of how much they want to invest in launcher research, there is no program sufficiently large to give work to design engineers at Snecma and the other companies involved in engine development.

“I don’t have an exact number but it’s a few hundred positions that are at risk,” said Joel Barre, director for space programs at Snecma. “Of course, it’s not just here at Snecma. EADS Space Transportation in Germany, Avio in Italy, Volvo in Sweden and Techspace Aero in Belgium — all of us are in the same situation.”

It was not supposed to be this way. ESA governments had agreed to develop a new Ariane 5 upper stage featuring the restartable, expansion-cycle Vinci motor, and invested some 350 million euros in the design and early testing of the engine. But completion of the Vinci stage was cancel ed following the December 2002 failure of the Vulcain-2 engine during the maiden flight of the enhanced Ariane 5, known as the Ariane 5 ECA. A five-year, billion-euro emergency-support package for Arianespace was approved, in addition to a 550 million-euro Ariane 5 ECA review and Vulcain-2 redesign.

The Vinci program is now scheduled to end this year, in part because neither ESA nor Arianespace has made the case that they need a new upper stage to meet foreseeable market demand.

Snecma Chief Executive Jean-Paul Bechat used the April 4 Vulcain-2 production ceremony to ask the French government to restart Vinci or decide on some other development effort to maintain Europe’s competency in rocket-engine design.

“There are programs for the longer-term, including cooperative efforts with Russia,” Bechat told French Industry Minister Patrick Devedjian. “But what concerns us is the medium-term perspective. We are putting Europe’s access to space at risk.”

French space investment comes from the research and defense ministries, meaning Devedjian has no direct control over spending levels or priorities. But he said the government is aware of the problem and had commissioned an analysis of what expertise is critical to preserve.

Devedjian said France would push for a renewed rocket-research program at ESA during a meeting of ESA government ministers scheduled for December, at which Europe’s medium-term space priorities will be decided. He specifically said a continuation of the Vinci program in some form should be considered by ESA.

But France also has decided to freeze its ESA investment through 2010. Even with the significant Ariane 5 ECA design effort now concluded, it remains unclear how much cash will be freed up in the French and ESA space budgets.

Antonio Fabrizi, ESA’s director of launchers, said the agency will determine by June what it will propose to the ministerial meeting. Fabrizi said he is optimistic that new launcher-research money will be made available. It was too soon, he said, to estimate how much.