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ESA finally admits — sort of — that private enterprise can do it better

Stephane Israel, the architect of ESA's rocket failure
Stéphane Israël, the head of Arianespace and the
architect of its failure to compete in the field of rocketry.

Today there was a news report in which Stéphane Israël, the head of Arianespace, kind of admitted at last that the expendable design of Europe’s new Ariane-6 rocket was a mistake, and that it will take a decade more to fix it.

“When the decisions were made on Ariane 6, we did so with the technologies that were available to quickly introduce a new rocket,” said Israël, according to European Spaceflight.

He added that it will not be until the 2030s before Europe begins flying its own reuseable rocket.

Israël’s comments illustrate the head-in-the-sand approach he has exhibited now for decades. He claims the European Space Agency (ESA) chose to make Ariane-6 expandable so that it would be ready quickly, but its development has not been fast, and in fact is now more than three years behind schedule. When it finally begins flying operational it will have taken almost a decade to create it.

His comments also are his lame attempt to push back against a recent ESA report [pdf], issued in late March, that strongly rejected the decades-long model that ESA has used to build its rockets. Up until now and including the construction of Ariane-6, ESA designed and built its rockets, using Arianespace, headed by Israël, as its commercial arm. In other words, the government ran the show, much like NASA did for most of the half century following the 1960s space race. The result was slow development, and expensive rockets. Arianespace for example never made a profit in its decades-long existence, despite capturing half the commercial market in the 2000s and early 2010s.

The March ESA report rejected this model, and instead advocating copying what the U.S. has done for the past half decade by shifting ownership and design to the private sector, as advocated in my 2017 policy paper, Capitalism in space. To quote the ESA report:

Rather than designing, developing and operating space infrastructure a commercially-oriented procurement policy needs to be adopted: The public sector, through space agencies like ESA, shall define the requirements for large-scale infrastructure or missions, for example, a crew capsule, and encourage the private sector to propose the most innovative and cost-efficient solution. The public agency will be an anchor customer buying a service or product. In parallel, it will also develop technology building blocks to enable private companies to mature technologies needed to fulfil the services.

To my regular readers, this recommendation will sound very familiar, as it simply echoes what I have been advocating for decades. Let private enterprise design and own what they build, and have the government merely be a customer (one of many) that buys it.

This model however threatens the existence of Arianespace as well as Stéphane Israël’s job, as both will soon be completely extraneous if private enterprise takes over. It also makes clear the utter failure of both in creating Ariane-6. Israël’s comments were thus his attempt to rationalize this failure (his more than anyone else’s), and make it appear that he was always in favor of reusability.

This is untrue of course. In the mid-2010s, when SpaceX was first demonstrating its ability to land its first stage in 2015, Israël repeatedly poo-pooed the concept, saying for example that the stress of launch limits the re-usability of rocket stages. He instead advocated making Ariane-6 expendable.

The result is that Europe is no longer competitive in the launch industry. ESA’s own members are increasingly buying launches from American companies like SpaceX because they find everything Arianespace offers is simply too expensive.

The new report has admitted this failure, and has advocated the best fix possible, letting freedom and competition and private ownership rule.

Whether Europe accepts this recommendation remains unknown however. It is apparent that Arianespace and Stéphane Israël do not wish to relinquish their turf voluntarily, and will fight every step of the way.

Conscious Choice cover

Now available in hardback and paperback as well as ebook!


From the press release: In this ground-breaking new history of early America, historian Robert Zimmerman not only exposes the lie behind The New York Times 1619 Project that falsely claims slavery is central to the history of the United States, he also provides profound lessons about the nature of human societies, lessons important for Americans today as well as for all future settlers on Mars and elsewhere in space.

Conscious Choice: The origins of slavery in America and why it matters today and for our future in outer space, is a riveting page-turning story that documents how slavery slowly became pervasive in the southern British colonies of North America, colonies founded by a people and culture that not only did not allow slavery but in every way were hostile to the practice.  
Conscious Choice does more however. In telling the tragic history of the Virginia colony and the rise of slavery there, Zimmerman lays out the proper path for creating healthy societies in places like the Moon and Mars.


“Zimmerman’s ground-breaking history provides every future generation the basic framework for establishing new societies on other worlds. We would be wise to heed what he says.” —Robert Zubrin, founder of founder of the Mars Society.


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  • Ray Van Dune

    “When the decisions were made on Ariane 6, we did so with the technologies that were available to quickly introduce a new rocket.”

    According to my searches, the first successful recovery of a Falcon 9 occurred in late 2015. The high-level design of Ariane 6 was finalized earlier in the same year. So at the time the decisions Israel refers to were being made, SpaceX was not only already flying the Falcon 9, but on the verge of showing that reuse was feasible.

    Basic analysis of the overall parameters of the F9 should have told Arianespace that by comparison, they were about to invest heavily in an outmoded design. Of course, I use the word “invest”, but they were not investing, just getting paid.

    After throwing away the chance to develop a state-of-the-art rocket for the sake of developing a solution rapidly, which is at least arguably a rational decision, Arianespace apparently then proceeded to forget that sense of urgency and developed it slowly!

  • Ray Van Dune: I strongly recommend people click on the links I provide from back in 2015, when SpaceX was first landing Falcon 9. Israel’s opinions then are quite amusing.

  • GaryMike

    I’m conflicted.

    I want to offer an opinion that might suggest to ESA what they need to do to be functionally competitive with American free enterprise.

    Then again, I feel guilty for letting them twist in the wind all on their own.

    I appreciate that I shouldn’t use the long ago used term “retards”.

  • Edward

    Robert wrote: “In the mid-2010s, when SpaceX was first demonstrating its ability to land its first stage in 2015, Israël repeatedly poo-pooed the concept, saying for example that the stress of launch limits the re-usability of rocket stages. He instead advocated making Ariane-6 expendable.

    To be fair, this was the opinion of many, if not most, rocket scientists and engineers. However, there are two things that Israël and others should have paid attention to.

    First, back in the late 1960s and very early 1970s, NASA was pondering the possibility of using a Saturn V first stage as a winged, reusable booster for the Space Shuttle. That there was such a proposal suggests that neither the stress of launch nor the stress of reentry from suborbital speed was seen by NASA as limiting the reusability of this stage of the Saturn V. However, the wings may have helped reduce the stress of reentry. NASA eventually rejected this proposal, and it is not clear to me whether it was because the wings and a horizontal landing on a runway were impracticable for this stage, whether NASA believed that the launch or reentry would make it impractical for an economical reuse of the stage, whether the design change to such a large monstrosity meant this concept was no longer workable, or whether NASA was hoping to move forward with a more efficient booster than the Saturn V’s first stage. No matter what, at that time NASA was prepared to tackle reusability.

    The bad experience with the Shuttle is also why NASA changed strategies from reusability to expendability when designing the SLS. Rather than learn from the Shuttle how to do it better, they learned the wrong lesson — reusability was expensive and limiting. Commercial companies Blue Origin and SpaceX chose to learn the lesson that reusability can be done better: made less expensive with a more rapid turnaround.

    Second, the very first time that SpaceX tested its reentry and “landing” technique, it was able to relight at least one of the Merlin engines after the reentry. The reentry burn most likely prevents damage to the engines and perhaps to some of the structure by slowing the speed at which the Falcon 9 enters the thicker part of the atmosphere. One thing I noticed is that the Falcon 9 slows down to a speed that is similar to the maximum speed that the New Shepard booster reaches as it reaches the thicker part of the atmosphere. Two different rocket boosters were able to operate after a return from their suborbital missions, and people should have sat up and noticed.

    However, doubt remained in the minds of many experts. Rather than think it was impossible to reuse a liquid fueled booster stage, they then said that it would not be economical to reuse it, that it would cost too much and take too long to refurbish between flights.

    Once again, being fair, the Space Shuttle taught them this lesson. The Shuttle’s solid rocket boosters were almost as expensive to refurbish as they were to build in the first place, which is why the Space Launch System does not recover and refurbish them. The Shuttle’s main engines were also expensive to refurbish between flights. However, rather than learn lessons about how to do better with reusability for future rockets, NASA and the world took away the wrong lessons from the Shuttle. Peter Diamandis created the Ansari X-Prize specifically to improve reusability. Since the 1990s, many in the space industry were comparing rocket launches to throwing away an airplane after each flight. If we did that, then it would cost so much to fly that there would hardly be any aviation industry at all.

    Come to think of it, at fewer than 100 flights per year, there was hardly any space industry at all. Only the most lucrative of space industries and only spendthrift governments could afford to launch anything into space, limiting the space industry largely to three major countries (if we count Europe, with its ESA, as a country) and a spattering of startup attempts by several relatively minor national space programs (it is only recently that China and India turned their minor space industries into something more impressive).

    Now that orbital launch prices are decreasing, more countries are starting to join in the exploration of space, buying launches on the launch vehicles of other countries — especially the less expensive launch vehicles. Reusability not only reduces the price to get to orbit, it increases the availability of launches. I don’t know any other orbital rocket that launched more frequently than the Falcon 9 does now.

    At this point, all launch vehicles should be designed to be reusable. It is the only way to be competitive. Now that we know that reusability can be done better than the Shuttle, I wait to see who can do it better than Blue Origin and SpaceX.

    Finally, Arianespace had made a certain progress with its Ariane-6 rocket. Before this, Europe’s flagship rockets were required to be made fairly evenly by ESA’s member nations, regardless of efficiency or cost competitiveness. No wonder Arianespace never made a profit. With Ariane-6, they were able to choose the better vendors (e.g. price, availability, quality) rather than spread the spending evenly. It may not be reusability, but it was a step in the right direction. It would be too bad if they are too stubborn to try to do reusability better than Blue Origin and SpaceX. Arianespace is one of the few experienced rocket makers who could do it. Otherwise, we will have to rely upon the other startups to do it, startups such as Rocket Lab.

  • Jeff Wright

    The real problem is that all this comes too late….military budgets will dominate everything in Europe now. Ariane 5 proves Old Space can work in peacetime. Now there are too many competing interests.

    They are looking at an HLLV though:

    No funds for it.

    They need an Elon…but the billionaires there are all about luxury.

  • Star Bird

    NASA is way too busy wasting their time over t his whole Global Warming/Climate Change Scam

  • Don Carrera

    ‘It is apparent that Arianespace and Stéphane Israël do not wish to relinquish their turf voluntarily, and will fight every step of the way.”

    When was the last time a U.S. gov’t agency voluntarily relinquished their department? It seems that we only get larger and more authoritarian gov’t masters with each decade. NASA seems to prove that economies of scale run out after the scale gets too large.

  • Cotour



    ‘Anti-Capitalist’ Cafe Closes Down After A Year Due To A Lack Of Capital” The Anarchist, a Canadian coffee shop dedicated to fighting capitalism, is going out of business on May 30, about one year after its opening due to a lack of capital, according to its owner.”

    “The café sold coffee and tea alongside books and merchandise promoting radical leftist ideas, and was ardently anti-capitalist. The business was unable to obtain enough capital to stay in business during a slow winter season, the cafe’s owner, Gabriel Sims-Fewer, wrote in an online announcement about the closure.”

    “Unfortunately, the lack of generational wealth/seed capital from ethically bankrupt sources left me unable to weather the quiet winter season, or to grow in the ways needed to be sustainable longer-term,” Sims-Fewer wrote.”

    (Fully indoctrinated and programmed to fail IMO)

    Yes, this is happening in Canada, but it is instructive and applies also here in America and most all other places. Except possibly North Korea and a couple of other choice locations on the planet.

    Do you think that this Canadian “Anti-capitalist” pseudo businessman will ever figure it out? Doubtful, he will always be resentful of those who are able to operate within real reality. I guess I really should not technically call him a “businessman”.

    Access to capital is essential in business, it is the life blood of business. And how do you acquire access to capital and that life blood? If you are not a winner of the random sperm / capital “generational wealth” lottery then you just begin, you start, sometimes from dead zero. You have a vision, a self-interest and a determination to provide a service and or a product that is essential or valuable to others and they pay you for that service and or product. They are willing by choice to surrender to you some of their precious capital / disposable income because you are providing value to them and their self-interest.

    And in providing that service or product you must to some degree make a profit over and above your costs at some point in the transaction in order to continue to support and provide that service or product. There are costs related to existence in other words. Can you continue to exist without eating? Try it. You must eat food and sustain yourself first whether it be plant or animal based to continue to exist. There is a cost to existing in the real world.

    And that is how simple business and capitalism is.

    Does success and access to capital happen overnight? Rarely. Usually you begin small, work every day, week after week, month after month, year after year, and in doing so you in time can build experience, trust, value and capital through your dedication and recognized competence in your chosen field or endeavor. People trust you and value your service and or product and they continue to want it because it helps sustain and it improves and brings value to their lives, their ambitions, their self-determination and their self-interests.

    Hoping and ideological wishing how “things should be” is not a business model, those are the musings of a child’s mind. Or the mind of someone who unfortunately has been convinced about what MUST be rather than informed, persuaded and educated about how things naturally are and operate.

    1 + 2 must always equal 3, here and at every other point in the observable universe. Every time.

    Socialist thinking is magical thinking where there are no costs to existence or doing business. All there is are ideological whimsical thoughts and models that have nothing to do with reality and sustaining one’s life. What is the test to see if your interpretation of reality is accurate or just fanciful wonderings that only exist between your ears? Introducing your concepts and ideas to the real world and having people embrace and continue to use them. Or test them and reject them. Very simple.

    And if you refuse to do so and prove the validity of your concepts and ideas and still insist that people embrace, use and adhere to your concepts and or ideas in the real world? Now you are a despot, a King, a dictator, a mandator, a delusional government, a socialist. You can have it both ways for a while, but that comes by the use of force and the elimination of all of those who dare to reject and defy you.

    And now you have become what you say you despise, an oppressor, a confiscator of generational wealth, freedom and resources.

    When you endeavor to argue against such absolute universal truths of reality, and you insist and spend your time and efforts, and you work against such things then you are defying the rules of the universe. And how do you think that is going to work out for you? At some point you must take through brute force from others in order to sustain your faulty model.

    Capitalism works because it most closely reflects the universal absolute truths of the universe and existence. And you can work within those absolute rules of the universe and still be a good, moral and productive person. Which does not mean that abuses and corruption within the corporate / business / capitalist model does not occur.

    Can unregulated or not properly regulated capitalism be dangerous, deadly, confiscatory and evil? Yes, yes it can, it can be just as dangerous, deadly, confiscatory and evil as communism. 100%

    And what is it that attempts to properly regulate such things, to mitigate those undesirable deadly, evil and confiscatory potentials? Socialism? No. A properly regulated legal, law, court and justice system and a right to private property and self-determination within a capitalistic system structured by a constitution is.

    And that exact constitutional system, that proposed ATTEMPT to counterbalance those undesirable potentials is what exists within what the Constitution of the United States for all and everyone who chooses to participate in it.

    Is it perfect? Are there warts, perversions and corruptions? Yes, there are. But nothing is perfect, and it is the best system we have got. If individual freedom and self-determination is in fact your desired operational end result that is. jgl 5/16/23

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