PARIS — A French-German working group established to coordinate the policies of Europe’s two biggest space program backers has concluded that the European Space Agency () should provide a propulsion module for NASA’s Orion crew-transport capsule to pay ESA’s space station operating costs between 2017 and 2020, government and industry officials said.
A second bilateral working group assessing the costs and benefits of an entirely new heavy-lift rocket has not yet delivered its conclusions despite a June 30 deadline, the head of the German Aerospace Center, DLR, said.
Both groups were created by the French and German ministries responsible for space. DLR and the French space agency, CNES, coordinated the effort to harmonize French and German space policy goals in advance of a November meeting of ESA ministers to set multiyear budget and program goals.
The 19-nation ESA depends on France and Germany for about 50 percent of the annual contributions it receives from its member governments. A clash between the two raises the risk of stalling ESA investments across the board, especially at a time when many ESA governments — including France — are under enormous pressure to reduce their debt.
The working groups were established to defuse potentially contentious issues at the heart of November’s ministerial conference.
The first group studied how ESA should pay NASA for Europe’s share of the operating costs of the space station between 2017 and 2020. That bill, estimated at about 450 million euros ($585 million) over three years, up to now has been paid by cargo deliveries to the station by ESA’s Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV), which is launched by Europe’s Ariane 5 rocket to provide fuel, food and other supplies to the station.
ESA has decided to cease ATV production after the fifth vehicle, scheduled for launch in 2014, reasoning that it should focus on new technology instead of building recurrent copies of hardware.
NASA proposed that ESA use technologies developed for ATV to provide the propulsion module for the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle, an investment that has been estimated to roughly cover the 450 million euros needed.
But several ESA governments, notably France and Italy, protested that a subcontractor’s role for Europe on Orion would not generate public enthusiasm. CNES proposed an alternative, called the Versatile Autonomous Concept. This vehicle would perform multiple tasks in low Earth orbit, eventually including the removal of large pieces of space debris.
Whether NASA would accept this vehicle as ESA’s “barter element” was never clear. What was clear was that the vehicle would cost much more than 450 million euros.
DLR Chairman Johann-Dietrich Woerner said Germany could accept the CNES-proposed vehicle, but that “an independent spacecraft cannot be realized for the amount of money which is available. The module for Orion is, so far, the only one which can be realized within the 450 million.”
The versatile vehicle’s costs are not yet fully defined but have been estimated at about 1 billion euros — “and 1 billion euros does not fit within 450 million euros as I understand it,” Woerner said.
In a July 4 interview, Woerner said that he would nonetheless support initial studies on a versatile, independent vehicle using ATV technologies so that the Orion module barter element “is not a single shot for the United States, but also a basis for future independent European activities.”
Woerner stressed that the working group was not given the power to decide anything. Instead, it was charged with assembling factual elements about costs and risks, and presenting a suite of options to governments. CNES President Yannick d’Escatha, briefing journalists on June 25, made the same point about both working groups.
The second working group — the one reviewing future heavy-lift launcher options — is taking longer than scheduled to produce its report, Woerner said. It should be completed by sometime in July, a date that fits with d’Escatha’s forecast that France’s new government, in office since May, will not have settled on a space policy before midsummer.
As described by Woerner and d’Escatha, this second working group is reviewing four options. A key component is a demand by ESA governments that whatever vehicle is built should be able to live without the approximately 120 million euros in annual support payments that the current Ariane 5 vehicle needs despite its commercial and technical maturity.
The first option would be to pursue the already started investment in an Ariane 5 Midlife Evolution (Ariane 5 ME) upgrade to enable the vehicle to carry 20 percent more satellite payload with a new, cryogenic upper stage. The cost of completing this upgrade is estimated at around 1.5 billion euros. Operating this vehicle, industry officials say, will be no more expensive than the current Ariane 5.
A second option would be to scrap the upgrade — while keeping its key Vinci engine — and proceed with development of an Ariane 6 rocket designed to carry one commercial satellite at a time into geostationary-transfer orbit. The current and upgraded Ariane 5 versions are designed to lift two satellites at a time.
A third option would continue work on Ariane 5 ME while funding initial designs of Ariane 6.
The fourth option, likely the least costly in the short term, would fund Ariane 5 ME and wait a few years before starting Ariane 6.
Woerner said an early assessment of Ariane 6 is that it would cost between 3 billion and 4 billion euros over 10 years.
Ariane 5 ME would cost 1.5 billion over six years and would be accompanied by a guarantee from prime contractor Astrium Space Transportation that, absent a dramatic event — in currency exchange rates, or a decision by a government to flood the market with subsidized rockets — the 120 million in annual support costs would reduce to zero over a specific period.