Currently the EU, mostly via the European Space Agency (ESA) and other national space bodies, has totally supported the development of Arianespace’s ‘next generation’ Ariane 6 rocket.
However, the development of Ariane 6 (A-6) has been delayed and not helped by Covid restrictions. The original concept was also that A-6 would be significantly cheaper to develop, build and launch than the current Ariane 5 workhorse. To a certain extent that aim has been achieved (launch costs for A-6 will be around $77 million compared with the reported $177 million cost of Ariane 5).
But A-6 is not reusable in the way SpaceX’s Falcon 9 booster stage is totally recoverable. A-6 is due to start its test flights in 2022.
The ESA is also developing its Themis programme which is a partly recoverable rocket and has a launch date for the prototype in 2023.
But this is not enough. The European Commission (EC), in creating its seven-year budget for space-related activity, is putting its foot down and demanding that Europe’s rocket technicians come up with a reusable vehicle where at least the powerful first stage is wholly recoverable.
Indeed, its timetable is ambitious. The EC is talking of a recoverable first stage ready for testing in 2023 and ready to fly by 2025.
The news emerged during the EC’s Horizon Europe briefings held last week.
Currently, Elon Musk’s SpaceX is winning a very healthy – and highly profitable – share of the launch market with its Falcon 9 rocket. That’s what Europe is attempting to emulate in its Horizon Europe project. The scheme calls for a reusable first stage and reusable rocket engines just like SpaceX. Also on the wish-list is the sort of launch frequency being achieved by SpaceX.