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.


  • European rocket of tomorrow: Arianne 5ME or Arianne 6?

    The question makes no sense, similarly to if you end up in a prison cell, and your 6’12” cellmate asks you “would you like to be mummy or daddy tonight?”

    NEITHER, stupid!

    Both are very bad solutions, if we’re talking about Europe’s future in space. Arianne should be scrapped, and the money should be poured into a CCDev-like program, funding the development of at least three independent, commercial projects.

    If we’re talking about social welfare for the Ariannespace’s army of engineers and (more problematically) bureaucrats, than the answer is: I REALLY DO NOT CARE, makes no difference to European space program, neither solution will enable a significant progress into space for Europeans.

    I know I am dreaming, but I just could not keep my mouth shut.
    Nevermind, we can buy flights from Elon.

  • Europe is in denial, locked into its previous cost and development structure. It’s ignoring the real possible solutions as Bojan suggests.

  • Paul451

    The Europeans aren’t going to replicate COTS/CCDev, but the low cost of SpaceX’s “blank sheet of paper” suggests another solution. Why not break ESA back up? Let each member state run its own state space program with its own budget. No single project truly needs more than a $1b/yr, and NASA shows that there’s no “economies of scale” when it comes to space agencies.

    Once separated, German aerospace contractors can develop Ariane 5ME, French aerospace contractors can develop Ariane 6, and let the best design win.

    And there’s nothing to stop former ESA members from cooperating on individual projects, just as ESA cooperates with the Canadian, Russian, Japanese and American space agencies today.

  • Linsey Young

    Wind down the Ariane programme and seriously fund Skylon. If Spacex can start to recover and reuse their stages these big dumb disposable rockets are history.

  • Good points all. Europe should move to commercial space as NASA has. That is the way to cut costs.

    Bob Clark

  • They should be negotiating directly with Mr. Musk to use his new Falcon 9 cores to boost their Vulcain 2 powered core stage more or less as is. And if the claim they can airstart it is true then let’s see it. Mr. Musk may just be interested.

    Normally I charge for this kind of advice. If they want a reusable booster then they should just build one. Landing engines can’t be all that hard and numerous big hydrocarbon engines are available, or they could develop one themselves if they had any consensus.

  • JayJay

    I think it’s almost too late. If Grasshopper works out for Elon we’ll be ten years behind the curve and it’ll be game over.

    That said I wonder how many Falcon 9 boosters we could buy for one Ariane?

    Probably a lot!

  • Marcus Zottl

    @ JayJay

    If the sources for this comparison on wikipedia are correct (Ariane 5 prices come from a FAA report from 2009), then an Ariane 5 launch costs about 4 times as much as a Falcon 9 (for roughly twice as much payload).

    But honestly I’m not sure those numbers are accurate, only twice as much per kg? I was expecting a bigger difference.

  • The general malaise of Europe in all its forms,(Space or otherwise), is superbly summed up by Bojan Pecnik above. Too many Bureaucrats, too many Committees, too many Working Groups, too many Sub-Committees, all with huge snouts in a huge trough. Get rid of the lot and buy, “A garage in Silicon Valley”…or anywhere!

  • I wonder how many Falcon 9 boosters we could buy for one Ariane?

    Exactly two. And you’ll get them back. And you’ve got two things that Elon Musk doesn’t have yet. A hydrogen core stage and a hydrogen upper stage. Can’t anybody on your side of the ocean think laterally? This should be totally obvious.

  • Tom

    For 1.4 billion euros you could build and fly a prototype Skylon and have a lot of spare change. Europe would be world leading an give SpaceX a run for their money. Its a no brainer, fund skylon!!

  • usk0

    Tom, what are you smoking. The company that’s developing Skylon says that the development cost for Skylon would be more than 10bn. I suspect yours was a rectally derived comment.

  • In 2011, REL were projecting a soft-tooled suborbital prototype Skylon by 2016, at which point they would have spent substantially less than EUR10B:

    The development of the *orbital* system and associated production lines, and full lifecycle testing (200 flights) of multiple airframes would consume the bulk of the funding.

    REL are hiring at the moment, so things seem to be going OK for them:

  • mr. mark

    Stellvia, You can say what you want but, REL engine technology is lagging and it’s almost 2013 and a complete engine has not even been tested let alone flown. You are dreaming if you think a Skylon prototype is going to fly by 2016. They don’t even have the funding yet.

  • Eric Thiel

    Europe is facing a major problem with the rise of commercial companies in the United States. The Russian Space Agency also admits that it will not be able to compete with the new lower prices within a few years. What direction will these agencies most likely take in order to be competitive again. Are there any promises of privatization within Europe?

  • Linsey Young

    1.4 Billion for a suborbital Skylon prototype doesn’t sound unrealistic. 2016 for it to fly does seem to stretch credulity, however.

  • Not my “dreaming”, merely reporting what was told to me by one of the Directors of REL. Since the time of that interview, Phase 3 start has slipped by at least 12-18 months, so you do the maths.

  • MaDeR

    What is with “Skylon, Skylon, Skylon”? They promised it – at latest – in 2022 (source: Wikipedia). Obviously this means this will get out in ’30s (I am STILL gratitious, because I assume it will actually exist!). And what then? Skylon will compete NOT with todays rockets, but with _reusable rockets of future_, fielded by SpaceX, Boening, LockMart and whatever else will survive this. Good luck, Skylon. You WILL need it. A lot.

  • Robert Clark

    To really follow SpaceX’s example of low cost launchers, they should use multiple copies of the Vulcain for the first stage. SpaceX noted using different types of engines for the lower stages, such as added strap on boosters, increases complexity and costs.
    Just using two Vulcain’s can launch a small manned capsule, giving Europe a manned spaceflight capability. Using three however would give an extra level of safety and would also allow this Ariane 6 version to launch satellites to GEO.