ESA Faces Large Cost for Ariane 5 Upgrade, New Ariane 6 Rocket

Artist's impression of Ariane 6. (Credit: ESA)
Artist’s impression of Ariane 6. (Credit: ESA)

The preliminary cost estimates are in the planned upgrade of the Ariane 5 launch vehicle and its Ariane 6 successor, and the one general conclusion can already be drawn:

Europe is in deep trouble.

European Space Agency (ESA) Director General Jean-Jacques Dordain said on Friday that it will cost 1 billion euros ($1.35 billion) for the Ariane 5 ME upgrade, which will allow the rocket to carry large payloads by 2018. The upgrade is needed to allow the rocket to keep up with the growth in the size of communications satellites, which Ariane 5 launches in pairs.

While that project is going on, it looks like Europe will have to find an addition 3 billion and 4 billion euros ($4 to $5.4 billion) to fund Ariane 6, which is set to enter service in 2021. The new rocket is being designed to launch single communications satellites into orbit for no more than 70 million euros ($94.7 million).

Meanwhile, SpaceX is marketing its Falcon 9 booster at the rock bottom price of $56.5 million.  The California company also plans a test launch of its Falcon Heavy rocket later this year, which it will market at prices ranging from $77.1 million to $135 million depending upon the weight of the cargo launched.

The Falcon Heavy would be capable of launching pairs of communications satellites into geosynchronous orbit just like the Ariane 5 does today. However, it could do so at a significantly lower price than its European competitor.

SpaceX is also experimenting with recovering and reusing the Falcon 9 stages. The eventual goal is to bring launches down to between $5 to $7 million per flight. If the company can achieve that goal (and its not clear whether it will), then the entire launch market would be upended.

In essence, here is what’s happening:

  • Europe will continue to operate and will spend a great deal of money upgrading a legacy system that can’t compete with SpaceX on price;
  • ESA must simultaneously fund a brand new rocket that won’t be ready for another seven year and will still be more expensive to launch than Falcon 9 is today;
  • Simply upgrading the Ariane 5 will cost more than it cost to develop Falcon 9 and Dragon, which included about $400 million from NASA and $450 million from SpaceX;
  • The cost of the Ariane 6 will be many times what NASA and its partners put in to the entire COTS program, which developed two rockets and two cargo freighters to service the International Space Station;
  • By the time ESA finishes with either launch vehicle project, SpaceX may well succeed in rendering both rockets uncompetitive with a fully reusable Falcon 9.

Europe’s launch vehicle strategy has all the markings of fighting the last war. It will eventually get to something akin to the Falcon 9 early in the next decade. Meanwhile, an increasingly confident SpaceX is leaping ahead with bold innovations that ESA is not even contemplating.

  • mfck

    Is that even possible? Are there any precedents of such transformation in any engineering business in the past?

  • windbourne

    no, they do not.
    It is the neo-cons in the house that push SLS, and insist on gutting funding for private space. Likewise, they are the same group that are fighting against SpaceX being allowed to bid on military flights.
    And this is the same group that is pushing to keep alive M1A2 production, when the DOD says that our 3000 tanks are plenty.

    What neo-cons enjoy seeing privatized, is anything that they do not control. Then they want it privatized.

    BTW, you will note that I do NOT include tea* in this BS.

  • windbourne

    Oh, I am a big believer in free enterprise, BUT, NASA has its place. They have a lot of wonderful R&D going on that helps America and the world.
    The real problem with NASA is NOT NASA. It is CONgress. That is mostly neo-cons, but even here, the dems play a game of local jobs. The difference is that neo-cons will attempt to kill off all competition, while the dems want to back it all.

    And the tea* well, they mostly keep quiet on what the neo-cons are doing. For example, they run around screaming that Obama is the one hurting SpaceX, when he is the one fighting for the continued support for private space. At the same time, they ignore the fact that neo-cons are trying to gut private space.

  • windbourne

    I agree with you about Ariane 6. It is hard to justify a direct competitor to spacex that does not cut their costs massively.
    Skylon is the best choice for ESA, but I doubt that they will do it.
    The other one is to pick up America’s work on SERAPHIM, as well as electric motors, and work on taking those further.

  • windbourne

    Sure, best 2 are SpaceX and Tesla.
    Both started with many of their components from outside and then brought them in.

    Even bigger is China.
    China makes heavy use of parts from the west, but only to build something, while they figure out how to grab the IP and bring it in-house.
    China stole just about everything that they need for maglev from Germany’s transrapid. Yet, Germany sold a short track, hoping to sell more, but China grabbed it all and will do the work purely in-house.
    The same is going on with AE.

    One that will be bringing it back will be Boeing.
    McNearny gutted us and now after the 787 debacle, it looks like he will start to bring back some sanity to the production lines.
    Heck, France’s li-ion batteries are still failing.
    Far better to bring it back in-house then to have this many issues.

  • Tonya

    The only major thing preventing Skylon, is Britain’s contribution. This goes back to my earlier point that members only get out what you put in and Britain only has a tiny minority interests in ESA launch systems. It’s heavily involved in payloads, but not rockets.

    Skylon would need to be adopted as a pan-European project, and it’s difficult to see how that could happen quickly.

    I suspect the decision in December might be an underwhelming fudge. They won’t approve production for Ariane 6, and will kick the whole question of next generation launchers out to review.

    I don’t think there is an easy answer for them at this stage, there is no European SpaceX on the horizon. They’ve spent the last decade consolidating their aerospace industry into EADS, and that’s a part of the equation regardless of what design they select.

    It would be like America trying to run COTS, CCDev or any other commercial program with only Boeing available as a competitor.

  • Aerospike

    While I agree with you in principle, how did you come up with that 10 % number? I assume you where thinking along the lines of “1 out of 9 engines, at a little bit less than 100% power”, correct?

    I don’t think that’s true, because I assume even a single Merlin 1D at (almost) full power would be way too powerful to land an empty stage.

    What I’m trying to say: being able to propulsively land a stage has little to do with the number of engines, but with how far you can throttle your engines down. Of course, having multiple engines helps, because it reduces the throttle range you need.

  • Jeff Smith

    I understand the point you’re trying to make, no one likes the cost of space launch, and we all wish it to be lower (esp. me).

    But what are EELVs expensive compared to? ELVs looked expensive compared to Shuttle’s projected costs, but turned out to be cheap by comparison. EELVs were much lower cost a few years ago when the Shuttle was flying and lots of employees were charging NASA overhead charge numbers. When the “subsidy” went away, the prices went up. Right now, Ariane 5 is subsidized and is “cheap” if you are a satellite customer.

    SpaceX has been raising rates over the years, and certainly faster than inflation. On Aug 9, 2008, I recorded their rates as being $35 mill (now $56.5) for a Falcon 9 and $78 mill (now $135) for a Falcon Heavy. To be fair, the throw weight has increased for those vehicles since that time, but so has the price. Increasing the cost by 50% while increasing the throw weight by 50% is NOT an example of economies of scale!

    I believe SpaceX will succeed in improving the launch business, the questions is this: is the improvement REVOLUTIONARY or EVOLUTIONARY? I personally will take an improvement either way, but one is a LOT harder to pull of than the other.

  • windbourne

    I am well aware of those issues. In fact, that is why I spoke out against what Putin is doing to their space programs. Moving it all under one managerial umbrella will make things worst, not better. Of course, you have to have leaders with vision of things to do, and not just being about money.

    And yeah, Europe desperately needs multiple companies to compete.
    However, you seem to want to compare Boeing to EADS, when nothing could be further from the truth. EADS is a gov. controlled entity somewhat less how our USPO operates. Basically, it reports to multiple European govs.
    Europe would be smart to break it into multiple companies that all compete. IOW, do not break it into divisions, but break each divisions into 3 parallel divisions and are folded into 3 new companies. By doing that, you gain competition.

    For example, when we bailed out GM and sold Chrysler to Fiat, we screwed up massively. We insisted that they all cut divisions. Instead, we should have either allowed those 2 to fail, or better yet, break them into multiple companies that compete against each other. Instead of 1 large company, we should have had 7 medium companies.

  • HyperJ

    Indeed. The F9R stage will be unable to hover, so there will be a certain “brown pants” element to the landing. But there is a difference between being “almost able to hover” and “not even close”.

    Yes, in theory you can do an extreme high thrust landing at the very last second. But in practice engine restart can not be timed as perfectly as needed. Or you reserve extra propellant for landing, but this does reduce your payload capability,.

  • Chris Courtois

    LOL This rocket… DOA.

  • Eric Thiel

    But also dems like Bill Nelson are big supporters of SLS

  • Douglas Messier

    I used to work at Yahoo in search. We had a similar problem with Google. Yahoo was once the search leader through Overture, then Google came along with an improved system. Yahoo began developing a new system called Panama to catch up. At the same time, it had to continue to maintain, operate and upgrade the system it had in order to keep revenue coming in.

    Panama ended up coming in late. Yahoo didn’t have it ready for the Christmas season that year, which tanked the company’s stock. Took years to recover. And while Yahoo was trying to catch up while maintaining an inferior legacy, Google kept moving forward with improvements on its system. Even once they got Panama working, which couldn’t really match Google, they were still behind. Yahoo also lacked Google’s cash to invest in upgrades.

    I think ESA is in a similar situation. Upgrade the legacy system (Ariane 5) while producing a new rocket (Ariane 6) that won’t be ready for seven years that is Europe’s answer to Falcon 9. Meanwhile, what will the market be like by then? Will Falcon 9 be fully reusable? Will DARPA’s latest effort to develop cheap access to space succeed? Can Europe develop something that can counter those competitive efforts?

    The end result in the search race is that Yahoo ended up working a search deal with
    Microsoft, which had produced Bing. That largely combined two weak
    competitors who were running a distant second and third in the search
    market. I haven’t looked at the numbers lately, but I don’t think the
    partnership has done much to dent Google’s dominance.

    I don’t know what will happen in the launch market in the decade ahead.

  • windbourne

    As to Yahoo, taking Bing as a partner was a disaster. Bing is not that good, and really does not stand a chance (yet).
    If MS really wants to take on Google, they have to quit chasing that moving target, and strive to create something new and different.
    Likewise, ESA and others must do the same.
    SpaceX is innovative from an economic POV. At this time, I suspect that Skylon may not even be as economical as SpaceX because they will be far too late to the game and unable to pay for their R&D costs.

    BUT, as I pointed out elsewhere, a SERAPHIM motor to throw it into the air, or even possibly an electric motor that uses hydrogen charged to plasma (yeah, ion), with electricity provided from a ground station might allow for real cheap launches.

  • windbourne

    oh, plenty of dems support the SLS.
    But, they are not trying to kill off private space. That is mostly the neo-cons that are doing that (oddly barbara whats her name of the next-gen scope is also trying to kill private space).

  • Eric Thiel

    Do you have any sources on the Republicans trying to kill off Space X and private space?

  • Tonya

    I think my response to that would be quite long and quite complicated.

    But unfortunately this is a comments system rather than a forum, and the story is already disappearing into the back pages. So, it’s probably better to draw a line here.

    But no need to worry, Ariane 6 will be in the news many times this year. Just make a mental note of where we left off.

  • Aerospike

    Why do you think it can’t hover?
    Grasshopper can hover, why should this be different for F9R (which has lighter legs, but 9 engines instead of 9 so I assume _roughly_ the same weight for both)

  • HyperJ

    I don’t have the numbers in front of me, but people have made calculations based on the 70% throttling capability of the M1D and the empty weight of a 1st stage. If it can hover, it will be by *VERY* slim margins. And to not loose too much payload capability, F9R needs to touch down with virtually empty tanks.

    The reason why GH had no problem hovering is that they ballasted it with extra heavy legs, and more propellant than it needed for each flight.

    In contrast, F9R will have very light weight legs and land virtually empty.