European launch chief insists no competition with Ariane rockets

European launch chief insists no competition with Ariane rockets
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A pioneer version of the Ariane 6 rocket is seen at the launch facility in Kourou, French Guiana.
Enlarge / A pioneer version of the Ariane 6 rocket is seen at the launch facility in Kourou, French Guiana.

European Space Agency

The development of a commercial launch industry in Europe lags behind the United States by about 10 to 15 years, but there are now about a dozen start-ups in Germany, the United Kingdom, Spain, and France building small rockets, sometimes referred to as “microlaunchers”. “

The European Space Agency and several of these nations have provided minimal support to these companies, often in the form of launch contracts worth a few million dollars. But so far, European space institutions have not reached out to help these commercial ventures in a more substantial way, as NASA did with commercial cargo and crew programs for the International Space Station.

One reason for this is the entrenched launch monopoly in Europe, Arianespace. Owned by several aerospace providers across Europe, the Paris-based launch company markets and operates a small launcher in the form of the Vega C rocket and heavy-lift rockets in the form of the soon-to-be-retired Ariane 5 and forthcoming Ariane 6. to retire. rocket.

These rockets are considered essential to Europe’s strategic interests because they give European nations independent access to space.

In recent years, with the rise of private launch companies in Europe backed primarily by investors, some space officials have called on the European Space Agency to support these commercial space entities as NASA and the US government have done. USA in the last 15 years.

However, at the 15th European Space Conference on Tuesday in Brussels, Arianespace CEO Stéphane Israel took issue with this notion.

“You can’t copy and paste the US model,” he said. “It’s not possible. The level of space spending in the United States is five times higher than in Europe, and the private capital is not the same. So if the answer is to say, let’s do what the United States has done, I think it will not achieve do it”.

In addition, Israel said that the European Space Agency should resist supporting microlaunchers to the point where these companies can compete with existing capabilities.

“A big mistake would be for this focus on microlaunchers to destabilize Ariane 6 and Vega C; that would be a historic mistake,” he said. “Microlaunchers can be supportive in driving innovation. But we must not create any confusion. This launcher will never give Europe autonomous access to space. They are in a niche market that represents maybe 10 percent of the market, and less than that. when it comes to European needs”.

Vega C and Ariane 6 are the right rockets for Europe now and for the next decade, Israel said. But he acknowledged that Europe must also develop a reusable heavy-duty vehicle. Although he didn’t say so explicitly, this seems to be a clear acknowledgment of the success SpaceX has had with the Falcon 9 rocket and its development of the fully reusable Starship rocket.

“We need a reusable heavy launcher,” Israel said. “Full point. This is what we need. And I don’t think Europe can afford two, three or four large or heavy reusable launchers. Sure it will, [require] lots of public money, industrial excellence, and I am more confident than ever that [require] solidarity in Europe to make this happen”.

The Arianespace boss couldn’t be more clear: he doesn’t want any competition for Vega C and Ariane 6, nor does he believe that any European commercial company should have the opportunity to compete for the development of a next-generation reusable rocket.

However, what Israel did not say is also important. With a lift capacity of around 2 metric tons to low-Earth orbit but a price tag of nearly $40 million, the Vega rocket is not priced competitively with commercial rockets or India’s polar satellite launch vehicle. . Furthermore, this Italian-made rocket has failed on three of its last eight flights. Also, while Israel is promoting Ariane 6, this rocket does not exist yet. Europe has spent almost 5,000 million dollars in the development of this propellant, that it will not be able to fly until 2024 and it will be four years late.

Indeed, then, based on this recent record, Israel believes that the existing launch monopoly in Europe should maintain that monopoly for decades to come. It’s up to European space officials to decide if they agree.

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