Chasing SpaceX, Europe Endorses Ariane 6

This is not how you design a rocket : ESA Ministerial Meeting

Seeking a defense against the market disruption being wrought by SpaceX and its Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy boosters, European space ministers voted yesterday to formally endorse the Ariane 6 project. The move came after Germany dropped its long running call to proceed with the Ariane V ME before moving on to a new booster. Hours after the meeting, the new industry partnership Airbus Safran, which will build the new booster, was formally announced.

The Ariane 6 will come in two configurations. Both will feature a cryogenic two stage core powered by a single Vulcain 2 main engine and a Vinci upper stage engine. Flanking the core will be either 2 or 4 monolithic strapon solid fuel boosters, each loaded with 120 tons of propellant. The resulting GTO performance is projected to be 5 tonnes for the $95 million dollar 62 variant, and 11 tons for the heavier lift 64 version which is projected to sell for $117 million.

Marking a stark contrast from the approach taken by privately held NewSpace leader SpaceX which has rocked the industry with new technology, low prices and oh so close pursuit of first stage reusability, Europe’s answer is still one of a state sponsored enterprise whose design came as much from governmental bickering and inevitable compromise rather than a cogent approach to lowering the cost of access to space. According to a Space News report on the agreement:

“The joint venture will be guaranteed five government launches per year at fixed prices. The business model presumes that the company will be able to find commercial customers for six launches per year. The idea is that Airbus, Safran and the future members of the joint venture will receive no subsidies for their commercial launches.

Industry officials said that, on occasion, the heavier Ariane 64 vehicle will have to be sold at cost — about 91 million euros for a vehicle carrying two commercial satellites into geostationary orbit — to remain competitive.”

With the last sentence as a starting position six years before the booster first launches, what could possibly go wrong?

Well a lot actually, beginning with an “X marks the spot” barge making its way into the Atlantic Ocean off the Jacksonville coast sometime in the very near future. In what could be taken as an acknowledgement of the predicament Europe finds itself in,  the story goes on to state that  “ESA Director-General Jean-Jacques Dordain said at a press briefing after the conference, the Ariane 6 program will be subject to a late-2016 review at which its operating assumptions will be tested in light of the program’s progress between now and then.”

Ariane 64 Image Credit : ESA

Ariane 64
Image Credit : ESA

It may not be overstating the case to suggest that Europe may actually be paying even closer attention to the progress that SpaceX makes over the same time frame. Elon Musk is confident that his company will be in a position to not only recover, but actually re-fly a Falcon 9 first stage within one year, let alone two.

Given the resources being put into first stage recovery, and the reams of engine test data being accumulated in McGregor, Texas, it is a fair assumption that SpaceX is absolutely confident its booster is capable of re-flight at least once. And for Ariane VI, already on the outside looking in versus Falcon 9 as far as projected prices go, one time may be all it takes.

Europe’s perfectly understandable goal is to maintain a fully indigenous launch capacity, and to that end, no amount of progress on the part of SpaceX is going to get its governments to throw in the towel. What will be interesting to observe however, is how European commercial satellite operators respond if SpaceX continues to progress. And that is not all ESA has to worry about.

Also desperately chasing SpaceX is United Launch Alliance. Although CEO Tony Bruno recently stated that ULA is not ready to commit to a reusable launch effort, the recently announced BE-4 methane engine development program with Blue Origin suggests at least the possibility that ULA could show up on the launch pad at approximately the same time as Airbus Safran with a booster that significantly beats its price as well.

It was only two short years ago that then Arianespace CEO Jean-Yves Le Gall declared of the threat posed by SpaceX in this BBC story:

“And there are other competitors, such as SpaceX, who speak a lot but have not yet launched a lot, and I think if you really want to exist in this business you must be very humble because it’s a difficult business, and in my opinion you can only really speak when you have an excellent track record.”

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3 Comments on "Chasing SpaceX, Europe Endorses Ariane 6"

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  1. Sam Stall says:

    If you wonder how SpaceX caught these guys napping, just look at the picture of the humongous meeting that accompanies this article. Too many people/agencies/governments/business interests involved in decision-making. They (and ULA for that matter) are simply too slow and too worried about politics and consensus building to react in a timely manner to SpaceX. Honestly, I think they’re finished.

  2. The truly astounding thing is that ESA plans to invest 3.8 billion euro in a project that will be obsolete before it gets off the drawing board. If they would start over from scratch with a design for a usable booster, they might actually put those euros to work in a useful manner. But given the political obstacles to making such a decision, it’s quite unlikely.

    Here’s betting that Ariane 6, if it ever gets off the ground, will never launch a commercial payload.

    • Gary Warburton says:

      I couldn`t agree with you more. Like most bureaucratic organizations the European Ministerial Council is in capable of looking into the future even a tiny amount. They deal only concrete facts. It is how we`ve ended up with the SLS, the work of unimaginative group of politicians who don`t understand that human innovation is always in a state flux.

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