Europe Hears SpaceX’s Footsteps as it Debates Ariane 5’s Future

Ariane 5 lifts off from Kourou.Space officials in Europe are deeply divided over the future of the Ariane 5 rocket as they face competition from other national programs and companies such as SpaceX. Speaking at a recent roundtable, Arianespace Chief Executive Jean-Yves Le Gall identified  the two main threats to Europe’s launch vehicle business:

The first, he said, is the nonmarket economies of Russia, China and India, all of which either have or are developing rockets to compete with Arianespace’s fleet of vehicles.

The second threat, he said, comes from “a couple of guys in a garage in Silicon Valley who start with a blank sheet of paper and come up with a brilliant idea.”

Unfortunately for Le Gall, there is no consensus among European space officials about how to meet these threats as an ESA ministerial meeting looms at the end of November.

The German government favors developing the Ariane 5 ME (Midlife Evolution), which would upgrade the payload capacity of the existing rocket that currently launches two communications satellites at once. The upgrades would allow the rocket to accommodate the growing size of these satellites.

Meanwhile, the French government favors Ariane 6, a new modular rocket that could be adapted to a number of payloads and be less costly to operate.  This position is supported by the Italians.

The Ariane 5 Midlife Evolution program, originally approved by European governments in 2008, still needs about 1.4 billion euros ($1.8 billion) to be completed and made ready for flight. It has been defended tooth and nail by the German government, which wants to preserve its industrial base and is concerned that Ariane 6 is poorly defined and may not afford that protection.

Backing the German position has been Astrium Space Transportation, the Ariane 5 prime contractor, whose industrial base in France and Germany will feel the effects of any strategic move on launchers. Astrium officials have said the Ariane 6 vehicle’s design is insufficiently thought out to start work on it, and that the Ariane 5 Midlife Evolution program would improve Ariane 5’s competitiveness.

Last week, French research minister Genevieve Fioraso said that work on Ariane 6 should start immediately, saying that Europe’s launch industry was “at a turning point” due to foreign competition.

Fioraso said she is confident that an agreement reconciling German and French concerns will be struck so that preliminary work on an Ariane 6 vehicle will begin in early 2013.

Fioraso said Europe’s pivot toward Ariane 6 could be accomplished without scrapping the results of a four-year program to improve the current Ariane 5 rocket with a more powerful, and reignitable, upper stage…She said the French position is that the move to Ariane 6 could be made without threatening jobs at Ariane industrial manufacturers, and without risking the loss of Europe’s launcher expertise.

A French government official said that the compromise being stitched together would not necessarily lead to an Ariane 5 Midlife Evolution vehicle ever being produced for flight.

European governments will meet in Naples on Nov. 20-21 to thrash out a long-term budget for ESA.