Will “777” Be a Lucky Number for the European Space Agency?

Ariane VI Credit : ESA

Ariane VI
Credit : ESA

According to a release from the European Space Agency, Europe is one step closer in plans for producing the next generation replacement for the market dominating Ariane V commercial booster. The new booster, dubbed Ariane VI, marks a curious retreat in capabilities from its predecessor, and the wholesale adoption of a business plan which seems totally contingent on the failure of SpaceX and its drive for re-usability.

At issue is the fact that following a Ministerial meeting last year, and at the urging of France, ESA has adopted a mostly solid fuel based design which would see three first stage solid boosters, a solid second stage booster, and finally a cryogenic liquid fueled third stage based on the Ariane V mid-life evolution upper stage engine currently being developed.  According to most reports, the reason for the switch to solid propulsion is to allow mass production of the stage segments in an effort to lower costs and reach a “777” goal consisting of a 7 year development time frame, a 7 metric ton capacity to geostationary orbit and $70 million Euro launch costs.  Along the way, they hope to avoid adding a fourth 7, as in a seven billion dollar development costs, shooting instead for between four and five billion. Of course, given the cost creep which seems to accompany any large public development project, the Ariane VI might just reach this unwanted milestone anyway.

As critics have pointed out, even if ESA is completely successful in its goals, it would still result in a booster which likely precludes any independent European crew capable launch vehicle for decades to come.  Also at risk is the fact that that after the Ariane V is retired, Europe might no longer be in a position to field a more capable booster if it wanted to, whereas a decision to proceed with a liquid fueled booster might have protected this potential.  Also, for environmentally sensitive Europe, doubling down on considerably more toxic solid propulsion elements is a curious choice at best.  Finally there is this.  If SpaceX is successful in achieving even partial re-usability, the $70 million Euro launch cost being pursued will be piteously inadequate for keeping Europe competitive, and any subsequent cost growth  would likely drive it further away from other competitors as well.

While Europe’s long term launcher plans may appear to be of limited relevance at the moment, it is important to remember that for any launch development project, time frames almost always stretch out, and  major changes such as those being contemplated occur infrequently at best.  The fact that what is for the moment the world’s leading commercial launch operation appears to be closing the door, rather than stepping through it and following SpaceX in pursuing re-usability is not an encouraging development for anyone interested in seeing a global expansion in space commerce.  If events follow predicable paths, ESA, having gambled on the past and lost, will fight back with the only remaining tool left, governmental intervention to skew the playing field in its favor.

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7 Comments on "Will “777” Be a Lucky Number for the European Space Agency?"

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  1. Gary Warburton says:

    Ariane VI seems to be ESA`s SLS. Their only hope of competing is with Britain`s Reactionengine Skylon project. However if they`ve wasted a lot of money on their Ariane VI they they may not have enough to back that. The wise move if they really want to compete would be to Ariane V`s capability

  2. Gary Warburton says:

    which they are doing and offer a little more to Skylon than they are currently offering. That way they would be hedging both their bets and wouldn`t have lost anything.

  3. kap55 says:

    Ariane 6 seems like a totally sideways move. You really have to ask why they even bother.

  4. Zed_Noir says:

    The Skylon project would not come online until the late 2020’s in the best case scenarios. ESA need something to replace the Ariane 5 ECA and Soyuz between now and then. The Ariane 6 performance requirements seems reasonable. Unfortunately France push for the mainly solid motor configuration to support their SLBM program IMO.

    Skylon will not be operational if SpaceX is successful with most of their current plans. There will be no justification to developed another reusable space launch vehicle system if one is already in place. We will know in a few years if SpaceX makes good on the Falcon 9 reusable launcher (AKA F9R).

    The Ariane 6 commercial prospects also depends on the success or failures of SpaceX. The current projected launch cost per Ariane 6 flight is more expansive than the SpaceX F9R.

    Finally the Ariane 6 don’t seem to be easily man rated if ever. Should the ESA want their own human space flight capability.

    • Gary Warburton says:

      As far as SpaceX being able to handle the entire satellite market I rather doubt that because there is just too much demand for launchers for one company to handle it all and that demand will only increase as prices come down. A little later on Jeff Bezos will have his own Blue Origin system working however that will be some time later on. Originally Allan Bond of Reactionengines used to say he will have Skylon working by 2018 however we all know that these systems are hard to do so it will probably take longer but it is a better alternative to Ariane VI or starting from scratch.

      • Zed_Noir says:

        SpaceX might have a large part of future commercial space launches not all of it. The rest will be divided up among the Russian, the Chinese and other minor players who are currently fielding new launchers. There will be not much left for new players.

        If Jeff Bozos fields an orbital launch system. It will be around the same time frame as the Skylon. Unless Amazon crash & burns, he have no funding issues. Also Bozos don’t need to make a profit with his launcher, as long it’s not losing too much money. The same could not be said for the Skylon.

        The ESA should revise their space launch road map after SpaceX fields a reliable reusable launch system. Their options at that point will range from bad to terrible depending on how much development budget they have available.

        Of course there is the minuscule chance that SpaceX could go belly up. I wouldn’t count on it.

  5. Robert Clark says:

    Insightful post. ESA actually is betting on SpaceX to fail in reusability without realizing it. For if SpaceX succeeds, the solid fueled Ariane 6 becomes obsolete before it is fielded. ESA would then have to start over again from scratch to produce a liquid fueled rocket which can be made reusable, with billions of dollars wasted on the solid-fueled version,
    I think it’s a bad bet on their part.

    Bob Clark

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