In meetings today the European Space Agency has decided to upgrade Ariane 5 rather than immediately build a new Ariane 6 rocket.


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In meetings today the European Space Agency (ESA) has decided to upgrade Ariane 5 rather than immediately build a new Ariane 6 rocket.

Normally I would label this story as an example of “the competition heating up.” In this case, however, I don’t see how an upgrade of Ariane 5 can possibly be competitive. The rocket has been so expensive to operate that — even though it has dominated the launch market for years and is very reliable — ESA has had to subsidize its cost. It has never made a profit. I don’t see how they can reconfigure it enough to bring its cost down to compete with Falcon 9. In other words, they are trying to put lipstick on a pig.

Nor is this surprising. Arianespace is a government-run business, operated like a committee with the member nations of ESA all having a say. Under this arrangement, it is difficult if not impossible to get a quick and efficient decision. Moreover, political concerns will often outweigh issues of efficiency and profits.

In the open competitive market of privately-run companies that the launch market is becoming, I am very skeptical this kind of business can survive.

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3 comments

  • Triumph of capitalism over socialism, at least under SpaceX gets taxed or regulated into oblivion.

  • With this decision the ESA has guaranteed Elon Musk’s prediction will be right:

    SpaceX CEO Elon Musk: Europe’s rocket ‘has no chance’.
    By Jonathan Amos
    Science correspondent, BBC News
    19 November 2012 Last updated at 10:47
    http://m.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-20389148

    He meant there the Ariane 5 could not compete with the Falcon 9. They would have to move to the Ariane 6 to produce a cost competitive rocket. The Ariane 5 ME is likely to be even more expensive so won’t help in that regard.
    But the ESA already has the means to produce a cost competitive rocket, but a false costing model prevents them from seeing it. They have the idea that a stage is only cost effective when using a single engine. So their plan for an Ariane 6 was to make stage at about the size of the Ariane 5 core but using an engine twice as powerful as the Vulcain.
    The problem is this would have been a multi-billion development project for the new engine; thus explaining their inability to pull the trigger on its development. But the point of the matter is Spacex has shown this cost model is fallacious. A stage can be cost effective using multiple copies of a smaller lower cost engine.
    By just using two or three Vulcains on the Ariane 5 core they would get a launcher of comparable cost to the Falcon 9. But an even more important result of this is that it would also without the side boosters give Europe an independent manned spaceflight capability.

    Bob Clark

  • I’m just wondering, with Eurozone budgets hemorrhaging red ink, how long it’ll be before people start demanding that ESA stop ‘wasting’ money on rockets and spend it on social programs.

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