An Update on Europe’s Ariane Conumdrum

Artists concept of the Ariane VI

Two related items in Space News point to the growing conundrum facing Arianespace as it attempts to devise a strategy for combating the emergence of SpaceX and the Falcon 9. After repeatedly downplaying any impact from SpaceX (and generally dissing the company, its rocket and its founder) during much of his long running term as head of Arianespace, Jean-Yves Le Gall, now head of the French Space Agency CNES, in recent years began to articulate a sort of begrudging respect for Elon Musk and company.

In testimony before the French Senate on February 25, Le-Gall was surprisingly candid about the cost difference between SpaceX and Arianespace, asserting that “launching a satellite on an Ariane V costs around 100 million euros ($137 million.)  After subtracting the amount of European Space Agency subsidies to Arianespace, the per-satellite cost drops to about $100 million,” whereas “SpaceX would charge $60 to $70 million to launch the same satellite aboard the Falcon 9.” 

The point of the testimony concerned whether or not France’s preferred plan for a new booster, the mostly solid fueled, single satellite capable Ariane VI would be competitive at its target goal of $70 million Euro per launch ($96 million dollars.)

The Ariane VI project  (two solid main stages, two solid strap-on boosters, and a liquid upper stage) is a testament to governmental capacity to ignore the obvious.  In the first place, it should be readily apparent that it is a rare thing for publicly backed industrial projects to actually meet their cost targets. Given the fact that the Ariane VI has a starting point above its competition, the margin for overrun is razor-thin to begin with.  Le Gall suggests that satellite buyers will be willing to pay more for Arianespace’s reputation.  That may be true, but it may also be the case that by the time a new, and unproven Ariane VI enters service, the Falcon’s reputation will be much more firmly established, and Europe will be on the outside looking in.

And then there is re-usability.  Rather than take into consideration the very real possibility that SpaceX is on the right track to establishing re-usability, as appears may be the case, France is promoting a booster which precludes its very possibility.  In fact, Arianespace is betting its entire future on the outcome of an event it has no way of controlling, the presumed failure of SpaceX’s campaign to develop the Falcon 9R and its Falcon Heavy variant.

This is where the second article comes in to play.  Europe is still very much conflicted about whether to proceed with the Ariane VI, as France wants to do, or to instead defer to an enhanced Ariane V, as Germany prefers.  In steps French company Air Liquide, complaining that its business will be undermined if the new booster does not have a significant cryogenic component.   And that is only the beginning of the problem, the real issue is the convoluted decision making process undertaken by a group of nations all arguing over who gets what piece of the industrial pie.  

 From the second article:

“During the Feb. 25 Senate hearing, the edited text of which was published on the Senate’s website, Le Gall also said the industrial study concluded that by limiting Ariane 6 contractors to five nations, the rocket’s development cost could be kept to about 3 billion euros ($4 billlion).

Under this scenario, he said, France would take a 50 percent share of Ariane 6 costs. Germany would take 25 percent, Italy 15 percent and Switzerland and Belgium would each have a 5 percent share.

In addition to the cost of the launcher, Le Gall said 750 million euros would be needed for the Ariane 6 ground infrastructure.

Government and industry officials have said for months that the current Ariane 6 design argues for a large Italian participation given Italy’s experience in solid propellant and the fact that the mainly solid-fueled Vega small-satellite launcher is led by Italy.

But the Italian government’s ability to finance a large Ariane 6 stake is unclear given the Italian government’s budget crunch. Le Gall conceded as much in his Senate testimony.

Germany is in the opposite situation. Its government has the wherewithal to pay for a big Ariane 6 position, but the current Ariane 6 design is not ideally suited to Germany’s industrial expertise.”

The real wonder is not that SpaceX is so much less costly than Arianespace, but that somehow, incredibly, fellow U.S. provider United Launch Alliance is actually so more expensive than the unwieldy European conglomerate. At least Arianespace, through its former boss, is willing to actually discuss what its prices are, admitting that a subsidy is actually a subsidy.  The same cannot be said for ULA.  The latter two share one point in common however, it is time to stop thinking about subsidies, and start thinking about re-usable technology.

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