After 50 years of success, Europe's main spaceport reaches a crossroads.
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HN Discussion: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=17575635
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Enlarge / First hot firing of the P120C solid rocket motor that will be used by Europeʼs new Vega-C and Ariane 6 rockets.
KOUROU, French Guiana—White light flooded in through large windows behind Alain Charmeau as he mused about the new age of rocketry. The brilliant sunrise promised another idyllic day in this beach town, but outside the sands remained untroubled by the feet of tourists.
Lamentably, the nearshore waters of this former French colony are chocolate rather than azure, muddied by outflow from the Amazon and other rivers. French Guiana has other compensating assets, however. It lies just 5.3 degrees north of the equator. Neither tropical cyclones nor earthquakes threaten the area. And its coast offers untrammeled access to both the east and north. These natural gifts have helped this remote region become one of the world’s busiest spaceports.
From here, Europe has established a long but largely unheralded history in the global rocket industry. Nearly three decades ago, it became the first provider of commercial launch services. If your company or country had a satellite and enough money, Europe would fly it into space for you. Remarkably, more than half of all telecom satellites in service today were launched from this sprawling spaceport.
But times change. Like the rest of the aerospace world—including the Russians and traditional US companies like Boeing, Aerojet, and Lockheed Martin—Europe must now confront titanic changes in the global launch industry. By aggressively pushing low-cost, reusable launch technologies, SpaceX has bashed down the traditional order. Blue Origin, too, promises more of the same within a few years for larger satellites. Beyond these prominent new space companies serving larger satellites, dozens of more modest ventures are pursuing innovative strategies like 3-D printing to slash costs and snag a share of the small satellite market from traditional providers.
Inside the breakfast hall of the Hotel des Roches, which overlooks the lonely beach, Charmeau acknowledged this new reality. “We have strengths, and we have some advantages,” he said of his company, the Paris-based ArianeGroup. “But these are extremely challenging times.”Fleet of European-made rockets today (Vega and Ariane 5) and in the early 2020s (Vega-C, Ariane 62, Ariane 64).
Enlarge / Fleet of European-made rockets today (Vega and Ariane 5) and in the early 2020s (Vega-C, Ariane 62, Ariane 64).
This Frenchman may not be widely known in the United States, but as ArianeGroup’s chairman, Charmeau has become one of the most powerful people in the world of aerospace. He manages the production of three existing rockets: the Ariane 5, Vega, and a version of the Russian Soyuz. He also oversees development of the Ariane 6, and in late June he had come here to assess progress toward building the launch pad for this new rocket. Europe’s survival in the new era of low-cost rockets depends upon its success.
Dressed in a pressed white short-sleeved dress shirt, he looks the part of an engineer. Charmeau has the CV of an academic, too, having earned a degree from the Ecole des Arts et Métiers, a prestigious school founded in 1780 by a French Duke who later tried to help King Louis XVI escape execution. Charmeau also holds a master’s degree from the California Institute of Technology.
Heʼs a fighter. Though now 62, Charmeau has retained a blunt style both in appearance and manner even after rising through the corporate ranks. Were Charmeau a cyclist, with his athletic build and combative mentality, he might properly be called a puncheur, an aggressor who excels at short, steep climbs. (He says heʼs more partial to golf and swimming, though.)
These are probably the qualities that Europe needs in its aerospace leader during this age. Certainly, during an interview with Ars, Charmeau conceded no ground to the Americans and their cheaper rockets, desire for reusability, or grand plans to settle the Solar System. When asked about Elon Musk’s desire to colonize Mars or Jeff Bezos’ goal of having millions of people working in space, Charmeau responded with an impish smile.
“I think we are in different worlds,” he said. “In the US, they think and they speak like this. Our mission is different. Our culture is different.”
At the Hotel des Roches. Charmeau is speaking, with Giulio Ranzo of Avio to his left.
Enlarge / At the Hotel des Roches. Charmeau is speaking, with Giulio Ranzo of Avio to his left.
For Charmeau, it will be enough to build quality rockets and to serve his European and commercial customers with reliable service at a reasonable cost. But will that be enough for the rest of the world?
Already, the Russians, who practically invented orbital spaceflight, are crumbling before commercial forces. In the United States, SpaceX has pushed its blue-blooded competitor United Launch Alliance to slash jobs, sending the ULA scrambling to build a new rocket, called the Vulcan. Still, that may not be enough. Charmeau wants to ensure the same fate does not befall Europe.
Will he succeed? Outside the hotel, the dark, muddy waters of the Atlantic Ocean here in French Guiana seem a particularly apt mirror. Europe faces much uncertainty in its effort to retain its place among the stars.
A head of broccoli
From above, French Guiana looks like nothing so much as an endless head of flowering broccoli, spreading from horizon to horizon. The verdant, misty forest is broken only by a few stubby, brown rivers draining into the ocean and a narrow ribbon of auburn shoreline.
Long a French colony, Guiana rallied behind Charles de Gaulle and Free France during World War II. De Gaulle never forgot this, and in 1964 the statesman returned the favor, visiting French Guiana to declare that France would build a spaceport there to launch rockets. France was with this territory, de Gaulle said, and it would attain worldwide fame for the spaceflight role it would play. “We have begun, and we will keep going,” de Gaulle told a crowd in Cayenne, then the only town of any real size in the territory. Go, it did. Today, French Guiana is a department of France, part of the European Union, and among the most prosperous regions of South America.
Arrival of General De Gaulle in Cayenne, French Guiana, on March 24, 1964.
Arrival of General De Gaulle in Cayenne, French Guiana, on March 24, 1964.
When de Gaulle visited French Guiana more than 50 years ago, about 200 people lived in the vicinity of Kourou, which sits 50km to the north of Cayenne. Mud huts were initially the only infrastructure. First, workers from France and other parts of Europe hacked roads through the jungle, then they built residence halls, a hospital, and other basic needs before working on the spaceport. The Guiana Space Center, or CSG, officially opened for business in 1968.
The world’s great launch facilities each have their own characteristic biome. The first orbital spaceport, in Baikonur, Kazakhstan, lies amid an arid, desolate Asian steppe. It is blistering hot in the summer and desperately cold during the winter. NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, in Florida, was built amid a swamp along the Atlantic Ocean. It is humid most of the year but generally more temperate.
Unlike the desert in Kazakhstan or the swamp in Florida, jungle defines the CSG in Kourou. Traveling around the spaceport and its facilities, with monkeys and capybaras skittering to and fro, one feels as though the jungle waits to reclaim its lost territory. Many of the buildings, built in the early 1990s to support the Ariane 5 rocket, look twice as old due to the depredations of the year-round tropical climate.
At the spaceport in French Guiana, the jungle is never far from reclaiming its lost territory.
This test stage from an old Ariane 5 rocket has been sitting outside for about two decades.
A launch tower for an older Ariane rocket.
Paint doesnʼt survive for very long.
These buildings, where the solid rocket boosters for the Ariane 5 rocket are assembled, date to the mid-1990s.
The humidity and tropical rainfall are a rough combination on buildings.
Things break down more quickly here. Paint fades. Metal rusts. And the jungle must be constantly beaten back.
The European Space Agency’s senior official on site—a trim, soft-spoken Swede named Charlotte Beskow—explained during an interview that she had recently taken a vacation. “I was away for three weeks during the rainy season, and when I returned the grass was knee-high,” she said. “And I had no idea what might be in that grass.”
Despite these challenges, it works out in the end. Because it lies so close to the equator, rockets launched from Kourou can take full advantage of the Earth’s rotational speed. A comparable booster sent into space from CSG can lift 20 percent more mass into orbit than Florida and 35 percent more than Baikonur.
As a general rule, the European Space Agency feels under appreciated. Russia has a storied history. NASA has the Apollo program and five decades of interplanetary missions. China, the third nation to put a human into space, has a rising program and great ambitions.
And the Europeans? Even their own citizens don’t seem to know that much about their space agency.
“A lot of Europeans are not aware of the fact that we exist,” Beskow said. “This is not on the beaten track. People don’t pass by here on their way to anywhere. Anyone who comes here, comes here. They are not going anywhere else. So it’s not like Houston or Kennedy Space Center. We don’t have that advantage. Which is a pity, because this is really a neat place.”
Beskow explained this over lunch in the school-like cafeteria onsite at the CSG, named La Pirogue, which means dugout canoe. Beskow speaks English precisely and nearly flawlessly, which is notable and impressive because it is her fourth language. For lunch, she has chosen a pale fish, croupia, caught in rocky inlets along the nearby coast. She prefers her rice plain, sometimes with a dash of spice. When she picks up a small red bottle on the table that doesn’t have a label, she asks, “Do you want to try this? Sometimes it is not too bad, and sometimes it burns.” This time, it did not burn. Charlotte Beskow gives a presentation on the ATV at the Paris Air Show.
Enlarge / Charlotte Beskow gives a presentation on the ATV at the Paris Air Show.
It is striking to talk to people who work for Europe’s spaceflight initiatives. In Russia, an engineer might point to a Sergei Korolev or Yuri Gagarin as an inspirational figure. In the United States, it might be Wernher von Braun, Chris Kraft, or Neil Armstrong. There are no comparable figures to inspire younger engineers and would-be astronauts in Europe. Instead, a lot of the people we talked to just seemed to fall backwards into space.
Beskow studied electrical engineering in Sweden and figured that if she wanted to get a job for a Swedish company, French would be a good language to learn. Thatʼs where a lot of Swedish goods were exported to, after all. Eventually she began working for an aerospace supplier, found she liked it, and then took a job with ESA itself. In 1993, she moved to Kourou for three years to help track launches, and later she helped lead the European Automated Transfer Vehicle spacecraft program for the better part of two decades before moving back to French Guiana. Was this what a younger Charlotte envisioned herself doing with her life? “I had no idea this even existed at all,” Beskow admitted.
A "disastrous" result
The first three years Beskow stayed in Kourou marked a hectic and invigorating interval for the European Space Agency and its spaceflight aspirations, as the Ariane 5 rocket came online. After three decades of fits and starts, the promise of a pan-European space program finally seemed clear by the mid-1990s.
It had not been so certain during the 1960s, when the United States and Soviet Union were racing to the Moon. Europe had less grandiose ambitions. It just wanted its own rocket to deliver communications and weather satellites into orbit. Finally, after seemingly endless wrangling, the British, French, and German space efforts came together to build one. The Europa rocket—with a British first stage, French second stage, and German third stage—worked about as well as one might expect it would: seven of the 11 flights from 1964 to 1971 failed. “The result was disastrous,” recalled Giulio Ranzo, the chief executive of the Italian aerospace company Avio.
Europa might well have been the end of any meaningful European cooperation in space. After its cancellation, the British essentially stopped developing rockets in the early 1970s. They would rely on the United States to get into space. Italy, too, worked with the United States: Italian researchers partnered with NASA to acquire Scout rockets and launch them from a former oil platform off the coast of Kenya, near the equator. More than two dozen rockets flew from this site between 1964 and 1988, including nine orbital launches, mostly carrying scientific payloads.Timeline of key events for the CSG in Kourou.
Timeline of key events for the CSG in Kourou.
France, meanwhile, persisted with its own indigenous rocket program and, with German support, began working to develop what would become the Ariane 1 rocket. Observers in the United States looked askance at the new booster, confident that NASA’s space shuttle, which promised to fly inexpensively, frequently, and serve civil and national defense purposes, obviated the need for any other new rockets in the western world.
Although the Ariane 1 booster’s maiden flight on Christmas Eve 1979 went smoothly, the rocket did not prove a smashing success. It was too small, capable of lifting a mere 1.5 tons to low-Earth orbit. But soon, it was followed by the Ariane 2 and 3, and critically, the Ariane 4 in 1988. This rocket could place up to 8 tons in low-Earth orbit. Perhaps more importantly, it could lift a little more than 4 tons into geostationary transfer orbit.
At this time, in the late 1970s and 1980s, telecoms wanted to put large numbers of satellites into geostationary orbit, where they could maintain a fixed position relative to the ground. Suddenly, there were more payloads to launch than just the scientific missions of the nascent European Space Agency. Arianespace was founded in 1980 to meet this demand, becoming the first rocket company in the world to offer its service on the private market. “The Ariane 4 rocket worked extremely well,” Ranzo said. “Arianespace started to, allow me to say, dominate the commercial market.”
By then, the company was funded by 10 European states, and this initiative began to prove the value of working together. Long before the European Union, Europe came together to build and fly rockets. ESA, formally started in 1975, began to find its footing, too, with intriguing science missions such as the Giotto probe sent to Halley’s Comet in 1986.
Combined, ESA and its member countries may not have had enough business to justify the development and ongoing costs of a launch system like the Ariane 4. But when you added in commercial flights, the rocket more than paid for itself.
Meanwhile in the United States, NASA was finding that its space shuttle cost hundreds of millions of dollars per launch. And after the Challenger accident in 1986, the country gave up on its greater ambitions for lower cost and wider access to space. The shuttle would not serve the Free World’s launch needs.
"We don’t sell a Tata"
By the late 1980s, Europe began to consider whether it should have its own means of putting people into space—and perhaps have its own independent space station, too. ESA began dual projects to develop a space plane known as Hermes, as well as a much larger rocket to launch it.
Hermes never flew, because Europe joined the US and Russian International Space Station project. But the Ariane 5 became a lasting workhorse that has now flown for more than two decades and will continue launching until at least the end of 2022. (The Ariane 5 is considered such a reliable, high-end rocket that NASA will launch its $10 billion James Webb Space Telescope on the booster in 2021).
Because the Ariane 5 has proven to be such a quality rocket, moving on has been difficult for European decision makers. But the increasingly inescapable reality is that engineers designed the booster during a different era, when there were different priorities.
The Ariane 5 has been a workhorse since 1996.
It has two side-mounted boosters and a core stage powered by a Vulcan engine.
During a visit in late June, an Ariane 5 was being assembled in the Launcher Integration Building (BIL) at the spaceport.
Then, in July, the rocket was rolled to a separate building where four Galileo satellites were attached in preparation for rollout to the launch pad.
This rocket is due to launch on July 25.
It is always impressive to see such launch hardware up close.
No flash photography was allowed.
The BIL (where the rocket was in late June) is in the foreground, with the assembly building in the distance.
Large or small, a hard hat is required for all.
“The Ariane 5 was developed for human flights, and it started in 1985, at a time when it was the Cold War,” Charmeau said. “It was designed for a small shuttle, Hermes. Once you have designed a launcher like the Ariane 5, with all of the infrastructure, it is very difficult to change it. Competitiveness was not a requirement.”
Put another way, the Ariane 5 rocket was designed for performance, akin to a luxury car, rather than economy. Among its features, the booster had a unique payload carrier that can distribute two larger satellites into orbit, allowing customers to share the cost. For this reason, Arianespace felt comfortable for a while that the commercial market would help underwrite the rocket’s price of about $175 million per launch.
And for a time, that is precisely what happened. Since its debut in 1996, the Ariane 5 rocket has flown 98 missions, with just two significant failures. The Europeans are justifiably proud of their rocket and its capabilities. Asked about how the Ariane 5 compares to lower-cost alternatives on the market today, such as SpaceXʼs Falcon 9 rocket, Stefano Bianchi, Head of ESA Launchers Development Department, responded with a question of his own. “Are you buying a Mercedes because it is cheap?”
Ranzo, sitting nearby, chimed in and referenced the India-based maker of the world’s least expensive car. As he put it, “We don’t sell a Tata.”
Does SpaceX deliver "bullshit?"
Customers don’t seem to view the Falcon 9 as a Tata, or if they do, they don’t seem to mind because the price is only $62 million per launch. From an engineering standpoint, at least, it seems safe to say the Falcon 9 is anything but a Tata. No rocket before it had ever managed to coordinate the firing of nine engines at the same time and, later, to autonomously land on a drone ship in the ocean. It is the most modern, cost-effective orbital rocket flying in the world today.
When it comes to customers, there are several categories of payloads for which companies like SpaceX and Arianespace compete. For example, the market for national security payloads and NASA missions (James Webb is a notable exception, bartered between NASA and ESA) are typically closed to Arianespace. It is similar for Russian payloads and Russian rockets and Chinese payloads and Chinese rockets. Approximately two-thirds of the global launch market is effectively closed to competition.
So the real battle is typically over “commercial” launches—payloads for private satellite companies or countries too small to have their own launch programs. In this market, SpaceX has made significant inroads into territory once long dominated by Arianespace and the Russian launch industry.
Since January 1, 2017, SpaceX has launched its Falcon 9 rocket 29 times. By comparison, the Ariane 5 rocket has flown eight times. For SpaceX, 18 of the 29 flights were partially or completely commercial. For Arianespace, which has access to fewer institutional launches, seven of the eight flights were partially or completely commercial. More worryingly still for the Europeans, the German Ministry of Defense chose SpaceX to launch three synthetic aperture radar satellites next year instead of an ArianeGroup rocket.
Even, so, Charmeau rejects comparisons to SpaceX, because he maintains that the company is heavily subsidized by the US government. There used to be some substance to this claim. Without a critical NASA contract a decade ago for cargo delivery to the International Space Station, the Falcon 9 rocket probably would not exist today. However, as the analysis above shows, the majority of missions SpaceX flies are now for non-governmental customers. Moreover, there can be no question that, effectively, ArianeGroup is subsidized by its member governments.
But Charmeau persists with this argument today. The US government, he says, props up SpaceX by paying inflated rates for launches.
“The price for a US customer is not the same as the price for a commercial customer,” he said. “You can call it what you want, but that is a fact. It is known that the Air Force has procured launches at $100 million, when on the commercial market the price is well below for the same service.”
This is true. However, the US military says it pays more for launches because of its mission assurance requirements, which require extra steps to be taken for preparing and attaching the payload alongside myriad other system checks to ensure a safe ride to space for costly national security payloads. What does Charmeau think of this explanation?
“I would be surprised if SpaceX explained to commercial customers that they deliver bullshit to them,” he replied. “I would be extremely surprised by that.”
Charmeau correctly asserts that the United States, with the world’s largest military and a space agency with the biggest budget, has substantially more institutional launches than Europe. But SpaceX does not have a monopoly on those launches, as Arianespace does in Europe. Indeed, SpaceX has had to compete with the US-based United Launch Alliance from the beginning to break that company’s monopoly on military and civil space missions.
Chart showing SpaceX growth in global commercial launch market. Note how SpaceX (light blue) has taken market share from Russia and, increasingly, Europe. Figures for 2018 are estimates.
Chart showing SpaceX growth in global commercial launch market. Note how SpaceX (light blue) has taken market share from Russia and, increasingly, Europe. Figures for 2018 are estimates.
For those who doubt SpaceX, until recently the most legitimate criticism one could level against the California-based company was that it just did not launch all that often. Even as SpaceX racked up dozens of launch contracts, from 2013 through 2016, the company averaged fewer than six flights per year. Sure, the company could offer cheap prices. But what good was saving money on a budget car if it was always in the shop for maintenance?
That began to change in 2017, as SpaceX flew mission after mission, reaching a total of 18 flights. This year, it is on pace for 24 flights. And with the recent debut of the Block 5 version of the Falcon 9 rocket, and the promise of reusing first stage boosters more frequently, that flight cadence could expand to meet whatever demand customers might have.
This phenomenon has come to be known as the “SpaceX steamroller,” which competitors in America, Europe, Russia, and elsewhere have long looked for and privately feared.
In response, Europe has a plan, although it has been slow to materialize, admittedly. Unlike an Elon Musk or a Jeff Bezos, who can make a snap decision and decide the future of his rocket company, Arianespace has 19 shareholders and their parent nations, who must generally agree on making major investments in new rocket technology.
Eiffel Tower on wheels
The plan emerged on a steamy morning in late June, at the northwestern end of the spaceport in Kourou. In a large clearing, about 700 people are working two shifts to build a massive flame trench for the Ariane 6 rocket and a mobile launch gantry. The latter structure, which will house the rocket for final integration and then roll en masse to the launch pad before retreating to leave the bare rocket just before liftoff, weighs 7,000 tons and stands 100 meters tall. This makes it the largest metallic structure in South America.
“It’s the Eiffel Tower on wheels,” explained Frederic Munoz, who is managing construction of the project for the French Space Agency CNES.
Activity abounded at the work site as cranes lifted materials, horn blasts punctuated the sounds of jackhammering, and concrete was poured. Munoz said his team remains on track to complete the gantry and close out the massive flame trench by the end of the year.
The Mobile Launch Gantry under construction, in late June.
Frederic Munoz is overseeing the construction. He stands here in front of a poster showing the finished product.
Cranes, cranes everywhere.
Much work was being done to finish the flame trench and launch platform.
The rocket will sit on top of this platform. All of the "windows" and holes in the structure are where cables and fuel lines will go.
A look down into the flame trench. Probably not a great idea to stand here during the launch.
Artistʼs view of the configuration of Ariane 6 using two boosters (A62) on the ELA-4 launch pad together with its mobile launch gantry.
Also under construction: The BAL, where the Ariane 6 rocket will be assembled, before being rolled to the Mobile Launch Gantry along some railroad tracks.
Exterior view of the BAL, where the Ariane 6 rocket will be assembled.
The rumbling of a rocket launch creates a tremendous amount of noise, shaking and vibrating the booster and the sensitive payload at the top of the stack. For this reason, rocket exhaust is deflected at 90-degree angles away from the base of the booster. At the same time, water is injected into this trench at the moment of launch, both to cool the base as well as literally dampen some of the vibrations from the rocket.
Unlike the Ariane 5 booster, designed during an era when expense mattered less, the Ariane 6 has been optimized for speed and cost. The month-long launch campaign to prepare an Ariane 5 rocket has been pared to 12 days for the Ariane 6. The core stage of the launcher may appear similar on the outside, but the components inside are completely different. At every step, Arianespace has sought to reduce the hours of manufacturing, the cost of the materials, and complexity of the system.
If everything works, when the Ariane 6 debuts in mid-2020, it will offer comparable service to the Ariane 5 rocket at a 40 to 50 percent reduction of cost. It will not be reusable, of course, and it can never reach the theoretically super-low cost of a fully reusable Falcon 9. But having eight to 10 launches a year, from an economic standpoint, simply does not justify the expense of developing and flying a reusable rocket, European officials say. Two dozen or more launches a year might, but that is not the scale Europe operates at or seeks.
Truthfully, if Europe ever did develop a reusable rocket, one that could fly all the missions in a year, this would be unhelpful politically. What would the engine and booster factories sprinkled across Europe do if they built one rocket and then had 11 months off? The member states value the jobs too much. This is one difference between rocket-by-government and rocket-by-billionaire programs.
Consider, for example, just the solid-fuel boosters used by the Ariane 5 rocket to give it a kick off the launch pad. They measure 31 meters long, contain 238 tons of solid fuel propellant, and are attached at the side of the rocket. Nominally, these boosters are manufactured by Europropulsion, a joint venture between the Italy-based Avio and France-based ArianeGroup. But a Belgian company builds the forward and rear skirts of the booster. A separate French company builds the motor nozzle. A German company builds the upper segment. And this is just for the “simple” boosters.
“This is one of the reasons why we are more expensive,” one official confided during a tour of the solid rocket motor factory in French Guiana. “But the truth is governments won’t contribute funding for these projects without the promise of jobs.”
Europe’s first priority, therefore, will never be the minimization of jobs. Moreover, those workers have much more sedate schedules than their Silicon Valley counterparts. Far from 60-hour work weeks to meet impossible deadlines, French employees generally enjoy 35-hour work weeks and 10 weeks of annual paid vacation.
And yet, stodgy old Europe enters this new era of leaner, faster, and more daring aerospace with considerable strengths as well. It now has a nearly 50-year history of launching rockets and three decades of serving the commercial market. The Kourou spaceport is among the finest in the world, with its low latitude, lack of severe weather, and an almost unparalleled ability to launch both north toward polar orbits as well as due east.
In addition to institutional knowledge, Europe has dozens of manufacturing facilities on the continent as well as in French Guiana for the production of rocket engines, motors, fuel tanks, and solid-fuel rockets. Solid-fuel boosters, for example, require fewer parts and are cheaper to fly than liquid propulsion, and Europe has mastered the ability to combine both solids and liquids in the Ariane line of rockets.
“In order to create this cheaper and simpler solution of solids you need massive infrastructure,” said Ranzo, whose Italian company Avio manages solid-propulsion for Europe. “You can do it. It is simple. It is cheap. It is nice. But you need massive infrastructure. The advantage is that we have the infrastructure. We have had it for more than 30 years.”Kourou offers a clear trajectory over the oceans to the north and east.
Enlarge / Kourou offers a clear trajectory over the oceans to the north and east.
Ultimately, the Europeans are counting on this heritage to help compete, not just with SpaceX, but with a rising tide of other commercial companies in the United States as well as China. They expect many of the upstarts to fail.
“Becoming a rocket manufacturer, you cannot improvise,” Ranzo said. “You don’t build a rocket manufacturing facility from one day to another. The one who has probably done it best, Elon Musk, has taken some 15 years. We leverage the experience that comes from 50 years of work and expertise, and we are trying to use all of this heritage to come up with an offering that is competitive and flexible.”
By early in the next decade, that offering will consist of two new rockets with various configurations. The Ariane 6 has two primary variants. The Ariane 64, with four solid rocket boosters, will serve larger payloads—up to 11.5 tons to geostationary transfer orbit. The smaller Ariane 62, with two solids, will have about half of this capacity but cost less. And then there is the skinny Vega C rocket, which will use as its first stage the new P120C solid rocket booster also used by the Ariane 6 rocket.
Both the Ariane and the Vega rockets will also have state-of-the-art dispensers, giving them the capability to launch many microsatellites in a single launch. This gives Europe an on-ramp into the burgeoning market that companies such as Virgin Orbit, Rocket Lab, Vector, and many more intend to serve with much smaller rockets. With its dispenser technology, Europe plans to have the capability to launch microsatellites without having a dedicated microsatellite launcher.
“I think this is the best answer Europe can provide to a market that is extremely volatile at the moment,” Charmeau said. “It is very difficult to predict what the satellite market will be like five years from now. So the best answer is to provide flexibility so that we are sure that we will have the appropriate answer to whatever the question is.”
A message for Elon
For a cautionary tale, Europe need only look to its east and the Russian launch industry. That country has a much more notable history, having put the first satellite into space, the first human, the first space station, and much, much more. But when the Soviet Union broke apart, Russia lost some of its institutional knowledge. It has since failed to invest in its facilities, and new programs have suffered from a lack of consistent funding.
Recently, a senior Russian journalist warned that, due to its aging fleet and the rise of SpaceX, the Russian space program had entered the “Dark Ages.” Assessing Russia’s prospects, Andrei Borisov wrote, "There is no place for modernization, there is only the mission of survival."
Europe starts from a better place. It has new infrastructure, a clear sense of the threats, and funding to build new rockets. But what ultimately may save Europe is a recognition among its leaders that, in a world where Donald Trump has sent ominous signals about his allegiance to the old world order, the continent must stand on its own. As President Trump questions the value of NATO and says the United States must stand up a “Space Force” to dominate outer space, the leaders of Europe see the need to have their own access to space.
Europe may not seek to have its own human spaceflight program, but it is no longer limited to working with the Americans. Already, three of its astronauts are gaining fluency in Chinese and preparing to fly to China’s space station in the early 2020s. Europe has its own GPS and observational satellites to launch, too.
As Charmeau looks at the United States, he sees a will to dominate. When Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos compete with Arianespace for contracts, he regards their low prices as a discount intended to force out competitors. “Of course,” he replied, when asked whether SpaceX and Blue Origin offer artificially low prices. “This is in line with the US strategy that is dominance. It is easier to dominate the world if you have no competitor.”
That is not to say that the chief of European rocketry is anti-American, far from it. He has lived in the United States. He likes America. But he will not give in easily. Although it may be a popular (if untrue) perception among Americans that France always surrenders, one gets the sense that this Frenchman will not back down in the coming rocket wars.
At the end of our interview, when the Sun had risen higher into a deepening blue sky, Ars asked Charmeau a final question. What message did he have for our readers? Many of them lionize SpaceX, its technological achievements, push for reuse, and efforts to lower the cost of access to space. More specifically, we wanted to know what he would say to one particular reader of the site—Elon Musk.
Charmeau did not hesitate. “Europe will be there,” he said. “ArianeGroup will be there. Not with a similar mission, perhaps. We are not going to send a human-rated launcher to Mars. But we will be there.
“We have our place. We have our position. We have our assets. And we will be there.”
Editorʼs note: The European Space Agency supported the writing of this feature article by paying for air travel to French Guiana, from Paris, and accommodations in Kourou. Ars Technica paid for travel to Paris and other incidental travel expenses.
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