Last week I flew down to Kourou for the launch of Europe's third Automated Transfer Vehicle. It was a beautiful liftoff that took place in the wee hours of March 23, during which an Ariane 5 ES sent the 20-ton ATV loaded with fuel, water, food and supplies to dock with the International Space Station.
It also happened to be my first Ariane 5 launch.
But the big draw, from a trade journalist's perspective, was the lengthy charter flight between Paris and French Guiana, a trip that affords up to 12 hours locked inside a target-rich environment comprised of top government officials, industry stakeholders and members of visiting delegations: In this case we had folks from France, Germany, Italy, Poland, the U.S., Netherlands, Switzerland, Japan and China along for the ride.
I'm still pinching myself over that last one – a six-member Chinese delegation invited by European Space Agency chief Jean-Jacques Dordain that was led by Wang Zhaoyao, the newly anointed head of Beijing's manned spaceflight program. For those wanting to know more, click here.
Anyone interested in the future of Europe's ATV cargo vessel and the role that countries like Switzerland and Poland could play in it will have to wait for the April 2 issue of Aviation Week & Space Technology.
But for those of you wondering about Franco-German progress in crafting a common vision for the future of European launch, allow me to empty my notebook.
Since February, ESA's two largest financial contributors have been debating the merits of pressing ahead with an upgrade to the Ariane 5 – known as the Ariane 5 ME – or getting started right away on the rocket's successor, a next-generation launcher that many in Europe have precipitously dubbed Ariane 6.
An initial tranche of funding for the Ariane 5 ME, favored by Germany, was approved at ESA's 2008 budget ministerial. Estimated to cost a total of €1.5 billion, the upgrade would equip the Ariane 5 with the Vinci restartable cryogenic upper stage engine that would keep prime contractor EADS-Astrium's German engineering teams busy until Europe decides on a successor.
“Ariane 5 ME will be a very competitive product to be put on the market in 2016 or 2017,” Astrium Space Transportation CEO Alain Charmeau says, adding that the upgrade would add a 20 percent performance boost to the Ariane 5 for the same price of the rocket as it exists today.
“It could be good for us to start working on technologies for Ariane 6 in parallel with Ariane 5 ME, and it could very well lead to a decision for Ariane 6 in 2015,” when ESA is expected once again to meet at the ministerial level to set its multiyear spending plan, Charmeau says.
France, on the other hand, is ready to ditch the ME, in which ESA member states have already invested several hundred million euros, and get going on Ariane 6, a modular rocket designed to be less reliant on the commercial market than the heavy-lift Ariane 5 or its mid-life upgrade.
Emmanuel Terrasse, space policy adviser to French Research Minister Laurent Wauquiez, says France has already funded studies of an Ariane 6 design in preparation for the November ministerial meeting and that the decision to continue with the Ariane 5 ME or to initiate development of a new launcher cannot be delayed.
“The key point is really the content and the type of launcher we want to have,” Terrasse says. “This decision cannot wait, it needs to be taken now, given the development times. It cannot be postponed until 2015.”
Charmeau says the forthcoming decision doesn't have to pit Ariane 5 ME against a next-generation launcher. But with Europe still grappling with its sovereign-debt crisis, how can it afford to do both?
“We will be very glad if we can prepare Ariane 6 thanks to technology demonstrators and some work to be done on the concept of Ariane 6 and delivering a lower-cost launcher than today, which will require some years before we can really start the development,” Charmeau says. “We are willing to do Ariane 6 but we are realistic that to develop such a product, a completely new launcher, it will take something like 15 years to be in a reliable commercial position.”
In the meantime, ESA's Dordain is expected to seek proposals from industry next month for building a next-generation launcher that would bend the 19-nation agency's industrial participation rules and facilitate more competition among companies in an effort to lower development costs.
“I have a meeting with the launcher industry at the beginning of April and after that we shall issue the invitation to tender for getting proposals from industry on a next-generation launch vehicle based on requirements coming from a European customer base,” Dordain said.
ESA's current approach to procurement relies on member states to ante up funding every three years or so for specific development programs, leaving ESA to build the project while guaranteeing a 90-percent return on investment for participating countries in the form of industrial work share.
Last year an outside audit of Ariane 5 manufacturers found that unless European governments agreed to bend ESA's geographic return rules, the agency would be hard pressed to find savings with a new rocket development.
Dordain believes the shift in acquisition approach would indeed lower the cost to develop a new launcher, a figure that France and Germany say is expected to fall somewhere between €3-5 billion.
“I am doing this the other way around, asking for customer requirements and asking industry for proposals without geo-return constraints,” he says, explaining that an ESA working group has spent the past several months asking key launch customers like SES and Eutelsat what they want in a next-generation launcher. “From the customers there is no commitment, but they have agreed to put their requirements on the table. Then we hold the competition with industry and after that we go to member states and ask for money according to the results.”
Dordain says he hopes to have the industry proposals in hand by the time ESA government ministers meet in November. Although he does not expect the budget negotiations to lead to full-scale work on a next-gen launcher, he said “such a development can be made in different phases.” At a minimum, he expects ESA ministers to make a decision on the first phase of a next-generation launcher.
“I wish to know by at least the end of the year the architecture of the next-generation launch vehicle and the industrial team,” he says.
Dordain said if ESA ministers opt to initiate an Ariane 6 development in the forthcoming round of budget talks, it would not rule out continuing work on Ariane 5 ME. One option could be to continue work on the Ariane 5 ME's Vinci engine for use in the next-generation launcher while scrapping other elements of the mid-life evolution.
“For me the key point of the next-generation launch vehicle is to get a proposal from industry that responds to the requirements of European customers by the end of the year so we can make a decision and let's see what comes out of that,” he says.
But while Dordain's cost-saving approach is sure to put pressure on existing suppliers to lower prices, tampering with ESA's current industrial return rules could alienate some of its key financial backers.
“If you change it so that development occurs in one location, it would be cheaper, but then it would not be European,” says Johann-Dietrich Woerner, head of the German Aerospace Center DLR. “We still think a European solution is the right solution. We should put all arguments on the table, including costs, including perspectives, and then decide.”