Wörner: Europe Needs to Go Beyond Ariane 6 & Vega C

Johann-Dietrich Wörner (Credit: DLR, CC-BY)

In a blog post published on Sunday, ESA Director General Johann-Dietrich Wörner put down in writing what many people have been thinking for quite a while: that whatever their merits, Europe’s new Ariane 6 and Vega C boosters will not help the continent keep pace with an increasingly competitive launch market.

ESA ministers decided in 2014 to develop a new launcher family comprising Ariane 6 and Vega C, based on the existing Ariane 5 and Vega. The promise to secure autonomous access to space and reduce the price by a factor of 2 proved sufficiently compelling to secure ESA member states’ agreement to finance the development. At that time, I succeeded in placing environmental concerns and the possible development of reusability among the high-level requirements:

  • Maintain and ensure European launcher competence with a long-term perspective, including possibility of reusability/fly-back.
  • Ensure possibility to deorbit upper stage directly

Due to time and cost pressure, however, these aspects did not make it onto the agenda for Ariane 6 and Vega C. Yet in the meantime, the world has moved on and today’s situation requires that we re-assess the situation and identify the possible consequences.

In many discussions on the political level, the strategic goal of securing European autonomous access to space has not changed, however there is a growing sense that pressure from global competition is something that needs to be addressed. With Vega C, Ariane 62 and Ariane 64 approaching completion, it seems logical to complete these launchers in order to at least take that major step towards competitiveness.

At the same time, it is essential that we now discuss future solutions, including disruptive ideas. Simply following the kind of approaches seen so far would be expensive and ultimately will fail to convince. Totally new ideas are needed and Europe must now prove it still possesses that traditional strength to surpass itself and break out beyond existing borders.

In this sense, the process of discussing and deciding on a launcher system that eschews traditional solutions can send a powerful signal out into other areas as well. I therefore intend to invite innovative, really interested European players to come together to define possible ways forward.

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  • Andrew Tubbiolo

    The problem for Europe is not global, it’s from Los Angeles California USA. If I were Space X, I’d offer this guy a job with his main function to shut his mouth and sell launches to European satellite makers. He’s obviously too smart for his own good. Europe needs to engineer, develop, test, build and operate Ariane 6 it’s the perfect launch vehicle for Europe for decades to come.

  • MzUnGu

    They are on their siesta…or that mandatory 30 day paid leaves…no time for rockets. 😛

  • Michael Vaicaitis

    All if this was just as obvious as obvious can be even before Ariane 6 was first discussed. A6 and Vega may go some way to protecting European industrial space (and thereby economic) concerns, but at the expense of falling behind SpaceX (and BO).
    It appears it’s taken the sight of two boosters landing together to wake up the naysayers and blinkered to what was blatantly obvious – developing reusability asap is the future of space launch and essential to the develop further use of space.

    “At the same time, it is essential that we now discuss future solutions, including disruptive ideas.”
    I’m wondering what he might mean by “disruptive ideas”. Either it means, basically replicate what SpaceX is doing (i.e. BFR), or else, SABRE (and Skylon??).
    Anyone got any other ideas of what might be “disruptive”?.

  • duheagle

    I’m reasonably sure Herr Wörner has no specific idea about what might constitute “disruptive” for his purposes. I think this little declaration was analogous to octopus or squid ink – he put it out there to ward off potential attackers on his side of the pond while he scoots off to somewhere where he can settle his nerves after the FH launch and talk things over with his besties about what is to be done about this Musk maniac.

  • duheagle

    Ariane 6 it’s the perfect launch vehicle for Europe for decades to come.

    I was just saying the same thing the other day to my wife… Morgan Fairchild.

  • Aerospike

    I’m sure that Rocketlab, Blue Origin and others would disagree with your statement, that the the only problem for Europe is SpaceX.

    Then there is also India and China (no such thing as ITAR in Europe).

    Heck, Europe doesn’t even have anything to compete with Virgin Orbit! … (assuming they start flying this year).

  • Andrew Tubbiolo

    All true, however can they (the players you mention once they come online.) offer the kids of deep discounts that exceed the draw the Europeans can make by combining the launch offer with government policy and favor or linkage to other state issues? I think this ability would keep anything the Europeans fly alive and viable except in the face of BFR. In the face of that, I think they’ll need a squadron of New Glenn class boosters.

  • Michael Halpern

    There are a few things that FH proved, lots of smaller inexpensive engines can work well together with modern control techology, reusability scales up well, and reusable liquid strap on boosters are valid, the easiest for Areine to adopt is reusable strap on boosters.

  • Zed_WEASEL

    Wish people will stop bringing up Skylon as a counter to SpaceX.

    Skylon will not field anything that can carry a reasonably large payload before the late 2020s at the earliest IMO. Will take them seriously when there is at least a subscale SABRE engine on the test stand. Even then Skylon will be undercut by SpaceX’s BFR so much in launch price that it is doubtful that it make financial sense.

    Technically the Skylon requires a working SABRE engine, an air frame that can do subsonic flight and hypersonic flight with a flight control system that works in both regimes and capability to reenter the atmosphere from orbit. Plus good landing characteristics for a powered aerospace plane type that nobody flown yet. It will take a lot of development.

    Time is short for ESA to developed something that is even partially reusable to completed with SpaceX and BO. They need to field a large restartable hydrocarbon engine and streamlined their organization. The European governments will have to stop using ESA for job creation and drastically reduce overhead.

  • Aerospike

    I agree that the European launchers would keep flying in the face of most international competition, even if the end up needing as much (or more) subsidies as Ariane 5 does now.

    But the market is shifting away from large comsats, to fleets of small satellites. A fleet operator who wants to inject just a couple of satellites into a specific orbit (e.g. replacements) and wants a responsive and/or dedicated launch doesn’t even have the option to choose between a European or other provider. There simply isn’t any European option available right now. Those customers won’t be lost to SpaceX, they’ll be lost to Rocketlab et al.

    (And as long as there isn’t a vibrant “tug economy” in orbit, BFR imho isn’t really a threat to the nano/micro/small sat launcher market).

    So imho European launchers (current and in development) are loosing customers on the whole spectrum of launch classes. Big heavy sats and the “main” launches for fleets to SpaceX (and soon probably to BO as well), medium sized payloads and rideshare flights to Russia/India/China and the really small satellite launches to Rocketlab and probably soon a bunch of other small launch providers as well.

  • Andrew Tubbiolo

    I saw your logic. The ‘shift’ to smaller paylaods has been really slow, to no real shift. Yet … after about 15 years of expecting it. I think small launch is growing organically and not eating big space’s lunch. Yet. I expected it too, and somewhat still do even after being so wrong for so long. While in spirit I agree with you, the pragmatist in me has to admit that I’ve been wrong in my estimates on this market sector. Big is still big, and having watched the telecom satellite ‘revolution’ in the 90’s I know these paradigm shifts can go really wrong really fast.

    Europe did really great business over the past 20 years betting against us. 🙂

  • Michael Halpern

    The precooler for the SABRE engine is tested, and parts of the concept can be very useful they just have to get rid of ssto and probably change the hydrolox for methalox, and it could be a good air launch

  • Jan Bach Andersen

    History is full of examples of when someone has made a technical breakthrough then others will quickly catch up .And even know that ESA seems to be fare behind they will also catch up because they have no other choice than to look at how ohers are doing and adapt to it

  • ThomasLMatula

    Europe did the same thing in regards to wide-body jets. First they tried to ignore the U.S. Then created Airbus and invested heavily in it to build a competitor. But as if on auto-pilot the went ahead with the A380 while Boeing just dominates the market with its B777.

  • Emmet Ford

    All if this was just as obvious as obvious can be even before Ariane 6 was first discussed.

    I agree to the extent that it was obvious to me at the time, and it was obvious to a lot of people. Elon Musk actually stated publicly back then that the Ariane 6 would not be competitive. But it was not obvious to everyone. Ariane 6 was selected in 2014. The first successful Falcon 9 booster landing was in 2015. The first reflight of a used booster was in 2017. There are still skeptics that claim it remains to be seen whether reusability is economically viable. Back in 2014, ESA did not know enough, apparently, to commit to the ambitious development and test program that first stage reuse would require. They guessed wrong, and now it’s going to cost them.

  • Zed_WEASEL

    Something not so obvious is that SpaceX moves quickly from the Falcon Heavy to the BFR. It seems tri-core launch vehicles have fallen out of favorite in Hawthorne. Also Blue Origin opts for a large single core launch vehicle in the New Glenn. So my take away is that ESA should not tinker further with the designs for Ariane 5 and Vega. Time for a clean sheet large mono core launch vehicle design with hydrocarbon engines in the core.

  • Michael Halpern

    They are almost as slow to change as ULA, that’s why I said reusable liquid strap on boosters minor component first

  • windbourne

    Actually , using esa for job creation is fine. The problem that esa has, is the same as NASA; old space and no real responsibility.
    Esa needs to encourage multiple companies for competition. Even China is now doing that, though the Chinese gov owns some 7 of them.

    In addition, esa would be smart to work with NASA on developing mission to the moon. If I were them, I might consider backing 3 different European companies to build tugs/fuel Depot/in-situ production of fuel/O2 on the moon. By doing the tugs, then they can move back to redoing decent launch, and perhaps lunar Landers.

  • Michael Vaicaitis

    The idea of lots of smaller engines was already proved by F9, and is a basic requirement for landing and thus reusability. The most notable new rocket designs since the introduction of F9 that have ignored this are Ariane 6 and Vulcan. Ariane 6 can’t use reusable boosters until they have an engine that they can cluster into such an SRB. By the time you’ve gone to the time and expense to develop such a booster, you may as well use that design for the main centre booster – in other words an F9 clone that A6 should have been from the start. Having said that, SpaceX have already realised the many limitations of F9 have have moved on to BFR.

  • Michael Vaicaitis

    Just to repeat a reply from above – it’s taken SpaceX 10 years to get from F9 1.0 to F9 Block 5, which is the sort of “minor” development required for liquid fuelled reusable side boosters.
    ESA should skip an F9 clone and go straight to BFR…or Skylon?.

  • Michael Vaicaitis

    SABRE cannot use methalox – the low temperature of the LH2 is needed for the thermodynamics of the design. Being tied to hydrogen is the Achilles heel of the SABRE design and will always be what restricts the payload mass of Skylon.

  • Michael Vaicaitis

    Yes Skylon cannot exist without SABRE, and Skylon will never be heavy lift, let alone super heavy, and is unlikely to be cost competitive with BFR. That said, SABRE and Skylon could be a route to affordable to operate independent access to space for Europe. A lot of the development costs of SABRE are already being funded in the UK and by DARPA in the US.
    SABRE/Skylon will not be a BFR beater, but could be an option for Europe.

    Government job creation is a good idea – social capitalism works well, both socially and economically – private, market and social (aka government) capital are all useful.

  • Michael Vaicaitis

    You’re making excuses for European incompetence – I’m a European, so I have a certain degree of expertise in incompetence, and even back in 2013 it was as obvious as an obvious day in obviousville that full reusability was the way forward and that clustered “smaller” engines was the route to achieving that. Having said that, Europe have made and invested in a choice and though I might rather enjoy taking the “I told you so” position, the question is no longer how to compete with F9, but how best to move beyond A6 and compete with BFR and New Armstrong.

    In an arena of human activity that only started 60 years ago, SpaceX going from F1 to BFR in 20 years is quite the rate of change. Perhaps we should not be so surprised that there are many in industry and government that lag behind. From a wider historical perspective, it’s perfectly plausible that in 20 or so years time, the European tortoise (and India, China, Japan) may catch up with the SpaceX and BO hares. May be the best non-disruptive idea is to plod along behind, skip all the iterative design architectures, and go straight to whatever is settled upon. All Europe need do is keep their industry and expertise ticking along.

  • Michael Halpern

    Then redesign it and subcool the methane

  • Dave Salt

    The SABRE heat exchanger cools air down to ~90K so, as methane’s melting point is 90.7K, your suggestion may be a bit problematic 🙂

  • Michael Halpern

    It’s the sabre concept, and you cool the methane before lift off, the precooler provides the oxidizer not the fuel. No one is suggesting a direct conversion, but an adaptation

  • Dave Salt

    The fundamental concept of SABRE – and the RB545 that preceded it – is to use LH2 as a heat-sink to cool the air so that, when it’s ‘squeezed’ to 150Bar for injection into the combustion chamber, it doesn’t melt the latter stages of the compressor. Cooling methane low enough to act as the heat-sink would result in a solid, which would make it’s use as the heat exchanger’s working fluid somewhat problematic.

    You could use liquid helium as the heat sink and methane as the fuel, but decoupling these two functions is such a massive change to the cycle that the overall system mass would almost certainly becomes unworkable.

    Note that the RB545 fed LH2 directly into the primary heat exchanger whereas SABRE uses an intermediate helium loop for both thermodynamic efficiency and safety… you really don’t want a hydrogen/air mixture going into the compressor 🙂

  • Michael Halpern

    The jump in most main engines from 5 to 9 wasn’t that significant, 9 to 27 however

  • Michael Vaicaitis

    I fairly sure you can’t redesign the laws of thermodynamics just for the sake of convenience. Air comes in at 1000 C and needs to be cooled to -150 C in a hundredth of a second, which is why LH2 is needed.
    I am quite the fan of methalox, and not a fan of LH2 for launch vehicles, so I take your point, but SABRE is tricky enough as it is.

  • Michael Vaicaitis

    and as a further complication, the helium is continually re-cooled later in the loop by LH2, otherwise they’d have to carry more helium.

  • Dave Salt

    Yes, the thermodynamic cycle is the product of Alan Bond’s genius but the real-world engineering requires some rather complicated plumbing… not to mention the added complexity of the inlet.

    These and other factors suggest that air-breathing is best suited to ‘cruising’ while rockets are best suited to ‘acceleration’ and so their application to space launch, which primarily requires acceleration, is rather limited (e.g. for cruising out to a launch point or glide extension before landing), probably working best when applied to the first (zero?) stage.

  • Michael Vaicaitis

    “(And as long as there isn’t a vibrant “tug economy” in orbit, BFR imho isn’t really a threat to the nano/micro/small sat launcher market).”

    The problem with small launchers that lift ~50-500 kg for $5-10 million, is that BFR will also cost $5-10 million per launch, and be able to service many customers per mission, in or around a given orbit. A ride-share on BFR, plus a small orbit changing propulsion unit will be a far cheaper option for most small sats. Basically, full reusability beats miniaturisation. And if the small launchers try to go toward reusability, they will have to use larger, more complex and expensive vehicles, and so will degrade their cost advantage.

  • Michael Vaicaitis

    I reckon somewhere down the line, when the human spaceflight economy has greatly inflated over the present meagre situation, there will be a market for “executive” travel for ssto vehicles like Skylon. BFR will be the airliner, Skylon will be the Learjet.

  • Emmet Ford

    You’re making excuses for European incompetence

    Perhaps.

    and even back in 2013 it was as obvious as an obvious day in obviousville that full reusability was the way forward and that clustered “smaller” engines was the route to achieving that.

    This notion may enjoy such an overwhelmingly obviating quality now, but that was not the case in 2013. Right up until SpaceX started reflying boosters once each, many pundits and every other launch provider were opining that reuse required 10 flights per booster to pay for itself. Since then, of course, a flurry of single reflights has coincided with an 18 launch campaign in a single year, and those voices have grown quiet. Things are looking a lot different today, after the fact.

    but how best to move beyond A6 and compete with BFR and New Armstrong

    I agree, and my guess is that Mr. Wörner would agree as well. We’ll have to see what the ESA “ministers” think, and when they get around to thinking it.

    Perhaps we should not be so surprised that there are many in industry and government that lag behind.

    The real surprise is that it has happened now after not happening for so long. It took the arrival of a singular individual, who decided to bet a personal fortune on an improbable outcome.

  • Zed_WEASEL

    Got nothing against government job creation schemes. But in this case a more compact ESA organization with fewer layers of management will be needed to even pick up the dregs leftover from the SX steamroller. ESA got Bezos (man with unlimited budget), the Chinese (total package dealer), the reduced ULA and Northrop Grumman as second tier competitors.

  • Aerospike

    I don’t disagree with your logic, but I’m pretty sure that the launch prices for that payload range will drop significantly over the next few years, even without the threat of BFR / New Glenn looming on the horizon.

    That market is just really crowded (or soon will be) and providers will have to innovate and reduce costs to not loose their market share to competitors. Because of the smaller size of those launchers and therefore reduced capital invested in any single one, we will see much more “agile” development/iteration/improvement on those launchers than we used to see in the “old space” industry. At least on the level of what SpaceX did with their Falcon 9.

    And then there is also the fact that bringing something as enormous as BFR online will be a HUGE challenge. Even if we completely ignore “Elon time” and assume for a moment that BFR will be flying as early as predicted by Elon, I highly doubt that the early flights will be offered at the price level of a Falcon 1. Only once they have all the operational aspects fine tuned and polished, will they be able to reach the aspired price range.

    I don’t think that that will happen before the late 2020ies at the earliest. So there will be a lot of business for Rocketlab, Virgin Orbit, Vector et al. until then.