The French-led European project to operate Russia’s Soyuz rocket from Europe’s equatorial launch base is a year behind schedule, but the delay has had no effect on the program’s budget, according to officials at the French space agency, CNES.

The delay, which will push the first Soyuz launch from Europe’s Guiana Space Center in French Guiana to late 2008, was due mainly to the fact that the necessary government approvals were late in coming. All work started late, so the program’s expected budget has remained unchanged at 344 million euros ($413 million), according to Jean-Marc Astorg, a deputy director at CNES’s launcher division in Evry, France.

The Arianespace commercial-launch consortium is financing 121 million euros of the total cost through a French government-guaranteed loan taken out with the European Investment Bank. It will be reimbursed during the first 10 years of Soyuz operations.

The commission of the 25-nation European Union also is contributing to the program as part of its transport and research programs, with a total investment expected to be about 6.5 million euros.

European governments have suggested that Soyuz could be used to launch part of the future Galileo satellite navigation constellation, alongside a larger rocket such as Europe’s Ariane 5, which would carry groups of Galileo satellites into orbit. The company that will run Galileo has not been formed yet and has made no decision as to launcher selection.

European defense authorities are looking forward to Soyuz as a way of launching their satellites without either paying full fare for an Ariane 5 launch or being wedded to the delivery dates of a co-passenger with which to share an Ariane 5.

Two versions of the Soyuz are to be operated from Europe’s spaceport. The Soyuz 2-1a conducted a successful maiden flight in November 2004. The more-powerful Soyuz 2-1b is scheduled to make its maiden flight in late 2006 from Soyuz’s historic home base, the Russian-run Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. It will be carrying France’s Corot astronomy satellite.

The Soyuz 2-1b, when operated from the Guiana Space Center, will be capable of lifting satellites weighing up to 3,000 kilograms into geostationary transfer orbit, the destination of most commercial telecommunications satellites. Arianespace expects to charge about $40 million per launch, according to Francois Barrault, a Soyuz program manager at Arianespace. Arianespace is targeting two Soyuz launches per year for the first 10 years of operations.

Astorg said that CNES and the European Space Agency (ESA) — which is managing the program — are looking at a future adaptation of the European Soyuz to permit the launch of astronauts. But this would require an amendment to the Euro-Russian government agreements setting the terms of the Soyuz transfer.

Jean-Pierre Haignere, ESA’s senior program manager for the Soyuz project, said the Soyuz 2-1a and 2-1b vehicles have not been qualified by Russia as man-rated vehicles capable of carrying astronauts.

Haignere said ESA has signed study contracts with Russia’s RSC Energia organization outside Moscow to assess what it would take to adapt the European Soyuz to carry astronauts.

“From the beginning we looked at the implications of launching astronauts with the new-generation vehicle,” Haignere said during a press briefing here June 15. “Our preliminary estimate is that it would cost something less than 100 million euros to adapt the vehicle for astronauts. But let’s be clear: There is no money reserved for this at this time.”