Will ESA ever learn?

The European Space Agency (ESA) is continuing to back the Ariane 6 rocket development and according to its latest budget plans will place a further €8 billion into the launch sector starting next year of which €4.3 billion is to be injected into on-going development costs for Arianespace’s ‘next generation’ rocket launcher.  The ESA has a meeting scheduled for December 2nd where the budget proposals are likely to be approved.

ESA says it will guarantee five government missions a year, and says that the investment represents better value for money than using a ‘Europeanised’ Russian Soyuz launch vehicle.  So far, so normal. The US, via its NASA space agency similarly underwrites assorted projects from Boeing, Space Explorations (SpaceX) and the United Launch Alliance of Atlas and Delta rockets

Arianespace is proposing two variants: an Ariane 62 and the heavier beast, an Ariane 64 (which is basically a 62 version with extra ‘strap on’ booster rockets).

Arianespace, and its Airbus/Safran builders, is reportedly required to give cast-iron obligations as to its future charges and fees, while ESA says it expects to pay only €115 million per Ariane 64 launch which compares with today’s more typical Ariane 5 launch cost of some €165 million in total. This – simplified – final bill represents a saving of around €50 million per launch or – very approximately – €25 million per satellite (Ariane usually carries two satellites per launch).

Set against all these theoretical predictions is the reality that Elon Musk’s SpaceX system, albeit helped by NASA, is aiming to charge a sub-$1000 per kilo launch fee, and even a sub-$500 per kilo once reusable rockets are fully in use.  That’s fine, and a welcome aspiration. But SpaceX’s recent launches have been priced at a bargain basement $56 million – $77 million, and significantly less than today’s Ariane 5’s or the arch-rival ILS/Proton launchers which are priced at around $100m.  SES, which used SpaceX for its SES-8 launch is quoted as having paid at the “lower end” of SpaceX’s rate card. AsiaSat reportedly paid $61.2 million to loft its AsiaSat-8 into orbit in August.

In other words SpaceX, and its Falcon-9 launch vehicle, is already delivering prices that more than compete with any improved Ariane system, and SpaceX is targeting those even lower fees.

SpaceX which started converting a disused Boeing aircraft facility in Hawthorne, Los Angeles, only in 2002, has achieved a near-miracle – at least by Arianespace standards. In barely 10 years SpaceX has gone from technical blueprints to multiple launch successes, and speedily moving from one launch to the next.

One other fact to remember: President John F Kennedy made his famous “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard” speech in 1962. NASA went through various stages in its missions (Mercury, Gemini and finally Apollo) and landed humans on the Moon in 1969. That’s just seven years of hard work, and immense investment, but it was achieved.

Compare that success with the money that’s been poured into Arianespace, and the lack of progress (perhaps wholly understandable when being managed by a Euro-committee!). Ariane’s mid-way ME version (for Midlife Extension) has been on the drawing board since 1995. And at a considerable investment, and for an initial scheduled flight of only 2017-2018.

The Ariane-62/64 concept calls for as much of the “ME” design to be incorporated into the 62/64 versions. But the planned launch of the first A-62 is not for some time; some observers suggest at best 2021-22.  That’s more than 20 years of planning, development and immense costs.

Elon Musk’s courage is to be praised. His private-enterprise investment is aided by valuable NASA contracts, but they seem to know they’re on a money-saving winner. His fresh thinking is revolutionising the rocket launch business.

These comments are not intended to be a criticism of Arianespace, which has achieved a remarkable launch history. But unless launch costs TUMBLE then the satellite operator’s targets of significantly lower costs/transponder will never be met, other than by SpaceX.

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