Ariane V Scores 61st Consecutive Successful Launch, But Does it Have a Future?

Image Credit: Arianespace

Industry leader Arianespace reached a historic milestone yesterday, conducting the 75th launch of the Ariane V rocket. It was also the 61st consecutive successful flight for booster, which lifted off in its traditional duel payload configuration, carrying two satellites, MEASAT-3b and Optus 10.

In typical fashion, Arianespace was not shy about touting its success. Chairman and CEO Stéphane Israël  pointed out that with yesterday’s launch the flagship Ariane V has now placed 100 commercial satellites into GTO, and then went on highlight the company’s ongoing progress in the growing Asia-Pacific markets.

“I am particularly happy that this event came on the occasion of a launch for the Asia-Pacific region: a part of the world where Arianespace has been very successful, as demonstrated by a market share constantly above 60 percent, With tonight’s launch, 70 payloads have been orbited by Arianespace for customers from Asia-Pacific region and this trend will continue as our order book currently includes 10 more satellites to be launched for customers in the region.”

Indeed Arianespace seems to have had a good week, with SpaceNews reporting that the company has been successful in winning new launch orders after lowering its prices on lighter payloads which compete with the SpaceX Falcon 9. Despite its current current position as a world dominator in a market which has seen two major competitors, ILS/Proton and Sea Launch suffer major failures, all is not well with ArianeSpace as the European governments which back the launch consortium continue to struggle with a plan to address the market disruption being brought about by SpaceX and the Falcon family of boosters.

France and Germany are at odds over whether to proceed with an evolutionary upgrade of the current Ariane V which would feature a new upper stage powered by the Vinci cryogenic engine, the path favored by Germany, or the predominantly solid fueled Ariane VI which France wants. The latter booster would drop the dual launch approach in favor of a less capable rocket designed to launch single payloads at a price which is more competitive with SpaceX and more suited to the trend towards lighter weight all-electric satellites being driven by Boeing.

Adding a new wrinkle to the debate, which has seen the two sides grow so far apart that an upcoming meeting to discuss the issue has been canceled, a group of the world’s major satellite operators weighed in this week with a letter in favor of the Ariane VI, and promising launch orders if it could be ready by 2019.

European governments on the other hand, which are expected to spend something on the order of 4 billion Euros supporting the new launcher, which among other items will require new launch infrastructure at Kourou, French Guiana, are interested in a rocket geared for their own payloads and not just for commercial spacecraft.

The U.S. government by contrast, spent only $396 million on the development of the SpaceX Falcon 9 through NASA’s COTS program, a sum which also required development of the Dragon spacecraft as well two test launches of both booster and capsule. Whatever the European taxpayer is ultimately required to fork over in an attempt to maintain dominance over the commercial launch market, the figure will be a noteworthy indicator of the challenges which lie ahead for SpaceX as it continues to battle both the rocket equation, which shows no favor (particularly if you are chasing reusability) and the economic backing and subsidy of the some of the richest nations on Earth.

In the long run however, there is no escape from bad decision making. As Innerspace has pointed out on multiple occasions, a European commitment to a solid based booster is a decision which by definition precludes a path to reusability. SpaceX is one well placed barge (and one patent fight with Blue Origin) away from demonstrating just that capability. Europe in other words, may be about to make an epic blunder.

It is a decision which could also have ramifications for longer term exploration, particularly when what many consider to be an even bigger blunder, NASA’s Space Launch System, finally slams into the financial barrier which was first predicted by the Augustine Commission as it considered Project Constellation, and has been raised again in a series of GAO reports.

In short, if SLS is ultimately canceled by a future Administration, then a modular exploration architecture based on fuel depots and “some in-space assembly required” missions becomes the most plausible alternative. The heavy lift Ariane V is ideally suited to play a key role as a key international contributor in such a scenario, alongside the SpaceX Falcon Heavy and ULA Delta Heavy.   A slightly more affordable but definitely less capable Ariane VI? Perhaps not so much.

A speculative scenario to be sure, but it is one which could easily come to pass with a demonstrative launch of Falcon Heavy and a change in the political winds. If it does, the Ariane V may well be missed.

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2 Comments on "Ariane V Scores 61st Consecutive Successful Launch, But Does it Have a Future?"

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  1. Zed_WEASEL says:

    You are forgetting the elephant in the room. The forthcoming SpaceX Raptor powered reusable BFR (Big freaking Rocket) with the freaking over 200 metric toms lift to LEO. According to the web.

    • Stewart Money says:

      Not forgetting as much as neglected to mention as a caveat. I wanted to focus on the near term with boosters under development. You are correct that BFR has the potential to upset everything, but until we learn more specifics, it is on the notional side of things.

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