The development of a commercial launch industry in Europe is about 10 or 15 years behind the United States, but there are now a dozen startups in Germany, the United Kingdom, Spain and France that build small rockets sometimes called “microlaunchers”. “
The European Space Agency and several of these nations have provided minimal support to these companies, often in the form of launch contracts worth a few million dollars. But so far, European space institutions have refrained from helping these commercial companies in more substantial ways, as NASA has done with the commercial cargo and crew programs for the International Space Station.
One reason for this is Europe’s ingrained launch monopoly, Arianespace. Owned by various aerospace suppliers across Europe, the Paris-based launch company markets and operates a small launch vehicle in the form of the Vega C rocket and heavy rockets in the form of the soon-to-be-retired Ariane 5 and Ariane 6 to come. rocket.
These rockets are considered essential to Europe’s strategic interests as they provide European nations with independent access to space.
In recent years, with the rise of private launch companies in Europe supported mainly by investors, some space officials have called on the European Space Agency to support such commercial space entities like NASA and the US government. have done over the past 15 years.
However, during the 15th European Space Conference on Tuesday in Brussels, the director general of Arianespace, Stéphane Israel, disputed this idea.
“It’s not possible to copy and paste the American model,” he said. “It is not possible. The level of space expenditure in the United States is five times higher than in Europe, and the private capital is not the same. So if the answer is to say let’s do what the United States has done, I think we’re not going to get there.
Additionally, Israel has said the European Space Agency must resist support for micro-launchers to the point where these companies could compete with existing capabilities.
“A huge mistake would be if this focus on micro-launchers destabilizes Ariane 6 and Vega C – that would be a historic mistake,” he said. “Micro-launchers can be a support to stimulate innovation. But there should be no confusion. This launcher will never give Europe autonomous access to space. They are in a niche market representing maybe 10% of the market, and less than that when it comes to European needs.”
Vega C and Ariane 6 are the right rockets for Europe now and for the next decade, Israel said. But he acknowledged that Europe must also develop a reusable heavy transport vehicle. Although he didn’t explicitly state it, this seems to be a clear acknowledgment of the success SpaceX has had with the Falcon 9 rocket and its development of the fully reusable Starship rocket.
“We need a reusable heavy launcher,” Israel said. “Period. This is what we need. And I don’t believe that Europe can afford two, three or four large or heavy reusable launchers. [require] a lot of public money, industrial excellence, and I am more confident than ever that it [require] solidarity in Europe to achieve this.”
The Arianespace boss couldn’t be clearer: he doesn’t want any competition for Vega C and Ariane 6, nor does he think a European commercial company should have a chance to compete for the development of a rocket. next generation reusable.
However, what Israel did not say is also important. With a lift capacity of around 2 metric tons to low earth orbit but a price tag of nearly $40 million, the Vega rocket is not price competitive with commercial rockets or India’s polar satellite launcher. . Moreover, this Italian-made rocket has failed on three of its last eight flights. Also, while Israel is touting Ariane 6, this rocket does not yet exist. Europe has spent nearly $5 billion developing the booster, which may not fly until 2024 and be four years behind schedule.
Indeed, based on this recent record, Israel believes that the existing launch monopoly in Europe should retain this monopoly for decades to come. It is up to European space officials to decide whether they agree.
. chief European launch insists on makes he will have not competition with the rockets Ariane