SpaceX Looms Large as ESA Readies Ariane 6 Contract

October 29, 2014 – 08:42 am

Gaele Winters. Credit: ESA/P. SebirotPARIS—The head of the European Space Agency’s launcher directorate on July 7 issued a surprising endorsement of the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket during a French parliamentary hearing that was ostensibly about the status of Europe’s next-generation Ariane 6 vehicle.

Gaele Winters, who is expected to ask ESA’s check-writing body on July 16 to approve a nearly $3 billion contract with Airbus Safran Launchers to develop Ariane 6, said the June 28 Falcon 9 failure in no way changes ESA’s assessment of SpaceX.

“We have seen the outstanding success of Falcon 9, ” Winters said. “Despite the issue of about a week ago, it is a fantastic track record for this launcher.”

Winters was addressing the French Parliamentary Office for the Evaluation of Scientific and Technological Choices, which regularly reviews Europe’s and France’s space policy.

But as has been the case with most French government space policy meetings in recent years, this one devoted a good deal of time to SpaceX – its status and its progress toward developing a partially reusable Falcon 9.

European launch service provider Arianespace and SpaceX have the global commercial launch market about to themselves for the moment, pending the return of Russia’s Proton rocket to commercially acceptable status following its failures.

Arianespace Chief Executive Stephane Israel told the hearing that the SpaceX failure is a reminder that humility ought to be the approach taken by all launch providers.

From his vantage point as the head of SpaceX’s principal commercial-market competitor, Israel said SpaceX’s failure adds to the list of challenges for the Hawthorne, California-based company.

“They will need to meet the challenge of the return to flight – and of course they will succeed in this – at the same time as they plan a very aggressive increase in launch cadence, boost the performance of their engines, prepare the introduction of a new launcher [the Falcon Heavy] and move toward the reuse of part of their system.

“We’ll see how they untie this knot of challenges, ” Israel said.

Israel and other European space industry officials in recent months have expressed frustration that, even as they revamp their industrial organization for Ariane 6, some European government officials are more interested in talking about SpaceX’s rocket-reuse effort and asking why Europe isn’t doing likewise.

That frustration was in evidence July 7 as Israel and other witnesses at the hearing fielded parliamentary questions regarding the choice of the expendable Ariane 6.

Michel de Rosen, chief executive of satellite fleet operator Eutelsat of Paris, urged lawmakers to set aside thoughts of a better launch vehicle until the Ariane 6 is in operation starting in 2020.

“We need a utility vehicle at competitive prices, not a sports car or a luxury car, ” de Rosen said. “Any improvements you want to make to Ariane 6 are fine, so long as the improvements don’t lead to program delays. That would be making the better the enemy of the good.”


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