CNES Figures Out What SpaceX Got Right, But Can Europe Respond?

Jean-Yves Le Gall
Jean-Yves Le Gall

Below is a rough translation of a key portion via Google Translate:

If we compare the launcher SpaceX to its competitors, it differs in three major points. First, its perfect adaptation to launch useful governmental charges: these are the satellites from NASA and the Department of Defense who are an important part of its backlog and more of its income to the extent the government U.S. agrees to pay its own more expensive than what is charged to commercial customers launches.

Then its smaller size and ease of implementation, which lead to very low operating costs and de facto make it terribly competitive to launch commercial satellites: the last two launches of the Falcon 9 has achieved a return United States in this market, they were absent for several years, given the lack of competitiveness and availability of conventional launchers.

Finally, the technical definition and its industrial organization, from the beginning, have been designed with the aim of to minimize development costs and operating: instead of being a launcher at the forefront of technology, the Falcon 9 uses engines proven, easy to technology development and especially inexpensive to industrialize, and the launcher is made ​​by a very limited number of subcontractors, which limits the production costs.

Le Gall says that Europe need to adapt to this changing world as it develops the Ariane 6 launch vehicle to replace the Ariane 5.

  • Stuart

    This is the start of the ESA discussion, I expect to see further articles and meetings to discuss issues further as they adapt to survive… rather like turning a gigantic oil tanker ESA’s survival will depend upon their “turning circle”.

  • Michael Vaicaitis

    “Without counting that SpaceX has in its cartons changes his pitcher, starting this year, could fly in an even more powerful version that eventually could be reusable, thus lowering the price further launches – that had never managed to make the space shuttle, yet designed with this sole purpose!

    Such a development would Europe particularly severe, with one hand, the loss of market share and, on the other hand, the weakening of our autonomous access to space model based on the commercial success of our bowlers, given the relatively limited number of European government satellites to launch .

    These are the findings that led to define for Ariane 6 specifications that are similar to those of the Falcon 9 launch perfect adaptation to European government satellites, launch commercial satellites easy, simplified design and industrial organization tightened to reduce significantly launch costs.”

    This excerpt sounds perhaps even more interesting, and quite worrying. The third paragraph seems to imply that the proposed specification for Ariane 6 is their answer to SpaceX and Falcon 9. Is it really possible that they could be so dim-witted as to learn absolutely no lessons from what SpaceX is doing?. I really hope this is a bad translation.

  • Peter

    What i noticed as their competitive niche with Ariane 6 is further improvement of their stacked satellites technology. I think their goal is 3 stacked satellites per launch?

  • Terry Rawnsley

    It was certainly a rough translation. I’m particularly worried about the commercial success of European bowlers. 🙂

  • Aerospike

    As far as I know, it is actually the opposite: it’s back to one per launch instead of dual launches as is the case with Ariane 5 now.

  • Peter

    oh! oops.

  • Below is a better translation posted to the forum. To me THE most important factor in SpaceX reducing costs is still not acknowledged by the ESA: the commercial space approach.
    Both SpaceX and Orbital Sciences were able to cut development costs 90%(!) by following the commercial space approach. This is major reason why they are able to cut costs.

    Bob Clark

    by: Jean-Yves Le Gall (Président du Centre national d’études spatiales (CNES) )

    three perfectly successful launches of the new American launcher Falcon
    9, developed and operated by SpaceX, founded in 2002 in a Californian
    garage, bring many questions.

    Indeed, it is the first time in
    history that a private corporation has managed to successfully fly – and
    on the first try, too – a space launcher conceived with an
    antipodal/totally different approach to what has been done before.

    successes call out to us especially since SpaceX has announced their
    intent to dominate this industry, at a time where Europe has begun, at
    the initiative of France, the development of future launcher Ariane 6,
    which aims to enter service early next decade, and so will have SpaceX
    launchers as competitors.

    coming months, Europe will have to decide on the final commitment to
    Ariane 6, as SpaceX has demonstrated that is can occupy the land (serve
    the market) with commercial launches at very attractive prices.

    we compare the SpaceX launcher to its competitors, it differs in three
    ways. First, it is perfectly adapted to government payloads: NASA and
    DoD satellites are an important part of its launch manifest, and an even
    greater one of its revenues, as the American government is willing to
    pay more for its own launches than is billed to commercial clients.

    its reduced size and ease of implementation lead to especially low
    operations costs that make it formidably competitive for commercial
    satellite launches: the last two Falcon 9 launches have brought the USA
    back to this market, from which they had been absent for many years, due
    to the lack of competitiveness and availability of their classic

    Finally, its technical definition and industrial
    organization has, since the beginning, been designed with the goal of
    minimizing development and operations costs: instead of being a cutting
    edge technology launcher, the Falcon 9 uses proven technology engines
    that were easy to develop and inexpensive to industrialize/mass produce,
    and there are very few sub-contractors involved in launcher
    construction, which reduces production costs.

    sum it up, where classical methods have failed – in the past ten years,
    the USA has terminated development of many classic launchers, after
    wasting many billions of dollars on them – , the Falcon 9 may well bring
    the USA back as leaders of the Space Race, while today they share it
    with Russia and China for government launchers and Europe occupies it
    for commercial launches.

    Not to mention that SpaceX has been
    working on evolved versions of its launchers that, as soon as this year,
    might fly in an even more powerful version that might eventually be
    reusable, bringing down launch prices even more – something that the
    Space Shuttle was never able to do, even though it had been designed to
    do just that!

    Such an evolution would mean heavy consequences for
    Europe with, on the one hand the loss of market share and on the other,
    the embrittlement of our autonomous access to space that depends on the
    commercial success of our launchers, given the relatively limited
    number of European government satellite launches.

    These are the
    findings that lead to define for Ariane 6 specifications that are
    related to Falcon 9’s: a perfect adaptation to the launch of European
    government satellites, eased launch of commercial satellites, simplified
    design and tightened industrial organization to significantly reduce
    launch costs.


    It is clear
    that today, the USA are challenging us to compete with them by showing
    us the way with a system that puts into practice all those
    recommendations. And while, for many years, we feared competition from
    emerging economies with their cheap labor, competition is instead coming
    from the USA and their ability to innovate and to challenge themselves.

    situation bring back memories of the world of IT/computers in the early
    70s, shaken by the coming of new companies that had one thing in common
    – they all came out of garages in California. 40 years later, the space
    launcher industry, today considered a sovereign (government/national)
    industry, may well know the same upheaval.

    Europe’s space launch
    supremacy was hard-won/very expensive. Ariane 5 is the best launcher in
    the world, due to its reliability, conquering launch after launch since
    2003, and it will remain the best since Europe has decided to support
    its operation and its adaptations to the evolving market.

    such, we must react to SpaceX’s challenge and move forth with the
    development of Ariane 6. The goal isn’t to make yet another Ariane
    launcher, but rather to reinvent Ariane development by taking the same
    turn that IT did in the 70s and SpaceX is taking now. This is the lesson
    we learn from the Californian garages.
     Jean-Yves Le Gall (Président du Centre national d’études spatiales (CNES) )
     President of the National Centre for Space Studies

  • Douglas Messier

    Sorry about the translation problems. Google Translate really botched it. Somehow, it translated president into chairman to describe his position, even though president is spelled the exact same in French as it is in English with the exception of the accent over the “e”.

    Anyone have an suggestions for a better translation service than Google?

  • windbourne

    How odd. F9 is no better than arianne, atlas v, or delta IV for launching gov or commercial. The only thing better is costs AND survivability of malfunctions( engine out, etc).
    The only thing he got even partially right was the last; they paid attention to costs. They are bringing everything in-house, and minimizing the one-offs and forcing their fixed costs WAY down.

  • windbourne

    They know they are in trouble, yet are not learning a single thing from spaceX. Arriane 6 will be a Commercial disaster for themthem.

  • windbourne

    I think it was good enough to understand what he said.

  • Tonya

    Please note, this op-ed comes from a representative of CNES, not ESA.

    ESA has many voices.

  • windbourne

    BTW, thanx for the repost of all of it.

  • also offers a translator. But it’s about the same in accuracy to Google, just makes mistakes with different words. offers human translation at 6 cents per word. This would be $52 for this article at over 800 words.

    Bob Clark

  • Yes, in particular they are discounting the possibility of SpaceX succeeding in reusability in the next few years. IF SpaceX does succeed at this, then the solid fueled Ariane 6 is obsolete before it is fielded.

    Bob Clark

  • Tom Billings

    Quite correct. He *did* note attention to cost as important. What he did not admit to was that his organization will find it enormously difficult to actually *do* the things that paying attention to cost reveals as necessary. The internal politics of ESA demands the money contributed be at least *somewhat* proportional to the capital spent in each country. That means their large and distributed numbers of sub-contractors will be very hard to trim, without governments threatening to withdraw the contributions coming out of their own budgets.

    It’s at least as bad as having the LBJians in the US Congress demanding their pork.

  • prime8one

    Unfortunately Google translate or any other automated translation services are really not yet good enough for anything other than a rough idea of what was said. A human translator is still necessary for any subtleties to come across.

  • windbourne

    it is the many voices of ESA that will likely hurt them. Same way that CONgress does to NASA.

  • Tonya

    I don’t think the committee process itself is that harmful to ESA. It’s largely moderated by the important principal of “put your money where your mouth is”. No ESA member directly benefits at the expense of another.

    It is however incredibly slow, and to a large extent is an unwieldy organization not because of the size of ESA, but because space is a minor player to the much large defence and aerospace considerations of its members.

  • windbourne

    exactly right, though I wonder if they will try to add wings to the boosters? That still would not help them. It would suffer the same fate as the shuttle: Too many man hours.

    Regardless, SpaceX’s f9 is lowest costs but FH is where the sweet spot is. Upon flying, I would not be surprised to see the 3 cores land on ground, but will certainly splash down nicely.

    IOW, FH as EELV will allow maxium weight to LEO, but FH with bottom 3 cores will likely costs a fraction of what anything does today, and for the next 8 years.