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July 13, 2012

Arianne 6 and Falcon 9

There a remarkable article at SpaceNews by Peter B. de Selding today. It mostly focused on Reaction Engines, Skylon, and SABRE, but also contained this -- please pardon the length:

The New European Launch Service is a reversal of ESA’s past practice with respect to major developments. In the past, the agency would work with its governments to determine each nation’s level of enthusiasm for a given project. A budget would be set after the national contributions are added together, and only then would an industrial team be assembled.

This procedure has had the disadvantage of forcing ESA to build launchers with industrial contracting teams spread throughout Europe, with the size of each company’s role determined in advance by the level of its government’s commitment.

The resulting Ariane 5 rocket has been more expensive to build and maintain — so much so that the successful, mature vehicle requires some 120 million euros a year in ESA government support payments.

The new bid requests permit the industrial teams to design their own rockets without worrying about which government will contribute to it. Dordain has said the primary goal is a vehicle that will not need support payments under normal operations once it has proved its design.

If that ends up being a rocket built almost entirely in just one or two nations, so be it. These nations then would be asked to finance it.

ESA officials have been spooked by Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX) of Hawthorne, Calif., which has demonstrated its technical prowess with the launch of its Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon cargo vehicle to the international space station. SpaceX officials say one of the keys to its success is that Falcon 9 is built in one factory owned by SpaceX.

"That’s not building an industry, it’s just building a company,” scoffed one official with a commercial rocket supplier competing with SpaceX. But for European government officials concerned about the long-term viability of their Ariane rocket line, SpaceX has become a useful case study of one way to cut costs.

The rocket design sought by ESA would be capable of placing satellites weighing between 3,000 and 6,500 kilograms into geostationary transfer orbit, the destination of most telecommunications satellites.

Estimates of how much it would cost to develop such a vehicle vary between 3 billion euros to 6 billion euros over 10 years or more. That alone may turn off European governments when they meet in November and decide whether to upgrade the current Ariane 5 or start development of a new rocket.

Remember how someone outlined the biggest problem hobbling NASA today: "We do not have a space program, we have a jobs program." Europe is no better, but at least they are trying to fix things. Still, SpaceX spent $1.2 billion to date on all-new engines, Falcon 1, Falcon 9, Dragon, and launch infrastructure. Those are factual expenditures (of which the U.S. Government covered about 30%). But the new, cheap, European launcher ("Ariane 6") is going to cost 3 billion Euro before the inevitable cost overruns, and not include a whole spaceship in the deal. Just think about it.

As a side note, performance of both Falcon 9 (which is real), and "Ariane 6" (which is imaginary at present) is equally underwhelming, considering that Proton has just boosted a 6-tonne SES-5 a couple of days ago. However, there's a difference: Falcon is going to be enhanced in the coming years, while "Ariane 6" is not. And if ESA try to re-adjust the requirements, it will delay the project. To plan for a GEO launcher that tops out at 6,5 tonnes in 2022 seems ridiculously ill-advised to me. But that is unimportant, really. The important part is that they still cannot touch SpaceX's efficiency, even though SpaceX was bloating really quickly in the last 5 years.

Tags: space

Posted by: Pete Zaitcev at 04:36 PM | Comments (2) | Add Comment
Post contains 644 words, total size 4 kb.

1 What do you think of the new Virgin Galactic launch system. It's quite puny compared to the others, but it also looks to be much cheaper.

Posted by: Kazriko at July 13, 2012 10:02 PM (yn6Wx)

2 Kaz, look at this - http://zaitcev.mee.nu/launcherone_re-announcement

Posted by: Pete Zaitcev at July 14, 2012 04:50 AM (5OBKC)

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