Opinion: ESA has chosen badly with respect to its launch vehicle development

by | Nov 22, 2012 | Seradata News | 2 comments

At the recent European Space Agency ministerial meeting in Naples, Italy, the agency really had three choices with respect to its launch vehicle development:  it could built the Ariane 5 ME (Mid-Life Evolution) which might buy a little more time for Ariane 5;  or It could develop a new expendable (and cheaper-to-fly) modular Ariane 6 rocket; or it could go for a full scale reusable or partially reusable rocket design.   Each option had downsides.  

The first option would not necessarily make the Ariane 5 much more competitive, save for its ability to carry more than one very large communcations satellite at a time.  But it would be ready early. 

Developing the new Ariane 6 is probably the most logical choice given that SpaceX Falcon rockets are beginning to threaten Arianespace on price. Nevertheless,  in a way, even the Ariane 6 is behind the curve technologically as it remains an expendable rocket while SpaceX (Space Exploration Technogies) is already moving towards reusable technology.  Still, at least it would be cheaper to fly than an Ariane 5.  

The final option and probablly the best in the longer term is to develop a reusable  or partially reusable launch vehicle, possibly on the basis of the ESA-sponsored Reaction Engines Skylon technology programme (note that this writer is a small shareholder). The downside of this option is that it has more technical risk with a development that may be more expensive and take longer than the others.  

To counter the downsides of each of these options, it would have been the logical to combine two of them together so that the strengths of one might counter the weakness of another.  That is: either develop the Ariane 5 ME as a quick fix and go for a reusable option for the longer term;  or, even better, go for the Ariane 6 for nearer term competitiveness, while developing reusables as its successor.  

The final dual option, and probably the worst choice, was to do both the Ariane 5 ME and the Ariane 6.  This will inevitably mean that Arianespace will always be playing catch-up SpaceX.  Nevertheless, to appease Germany and France at the same time, this is what ESA’s ministers have chosen to do, albeit that the formal decision to proceed with Ariane 6 will be made in 2014 after a full design review.  

As he views his firm’s competitive leadership which he plots to maintain using reusable rockets,  Elon Musk, the billionaire rocket engineer leader of SpaceX said in a BBC interview, that upgraded versions of Ariane 5 would have “no chance” of staying competitive with his own firm’s Falcon launch vehicles.  He further advised that the European Space Agency (ESA) should now move directly to building its new lower cost Ariane 6 expendable launch vehicle.  

in a subsequent press conference at the ESA Ministerial meeting in Naples, ESA’s Director General, Jean-Jacques Dordain, jokingly reposted : “”Does this mean Elon Musk wants to contribute to Ariane 6?”  

The answer is of course “No” but polymath Musk will surely appreciate a stupid decision when he sees one being made. For when ESA makes myopic choices like this, SpaceX deserves all the success it can get.

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