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ESA funds ArianeGroup prototype vertical landing hopper

The European Space Agency (ESA) has now committed 33 million euros for ArianeGroup to develop a prototype vertical landing hopper dubbed Themis that would begin testing first stage landings by ’23.

ArianeGroup and its collaborators in Belgium, Switzerland, France and Sweden offer critical technical knowhow gained through the development of Europe’s next-generation engine – Prometheus – which will power Themis.

ESA’s Prometheus is a highly versatile engine capable of providing 1000 kN of variable thrust and is reignitable which makes it suitable for core, booster and upper stage application. An onboard computer handles engine management and monitoring in real time – a crucial feature for reusability.

ArianeGroup is the private consortium led by Airbus and Safran that is building Ariane 6. This deal suggests that ESA amd ArianeGroup has finally recognized that Ariane 6, built without reusability, is a lemon and is not attracting customers. This new contract starts the process of developing a reusable first stage.

They still might be too late. They will only begin testing the Themis prototype in ’23, with no clarity on when a full scale version will follow. Meanwhile, it is very likely that SpaceX’s fully reusable Starship/Super Heavy will be flying orbital missions by then, and likely charging far less than they presently do for their Falcon 9.

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.


All editions are available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and all book vendors, with the ebook priced at $5.99 before discount. The ebook can also be purchased direct from my ebook publisher, ebookit, in which case you don't support the big tech companies and I get a bigger cut much sooner.


Autographed printed copies are also available at discount directly from me (hardback $24.95; paperback $14.95; Shipping cost for either: $5.00). Just email me at zimmerman @ nasw dot org.


  • Ian C.

    Yes, it’s very late. But the Euros needs sovereign access to space post Ariane 5 and some Russian burners. It’s the only reasonable rationale behind such programs. They made it clear in the past that competitiveness on the market is secondary (that’s what those smallsat launcher startups are for). In that sense it’s decoupled from SpaceX’s progress.

  • John E Bowen

    “They made it clear in the past that competitiveness on the market is secondary”

    Yes, I agree. However, couldn’t they speed up their timeline by hosting a contest like the Grumman Lunar Lander X-Prize? You know, several good teams going for it, with the finals coming down to Armadillo and Masten? Then, after the “prizes round”, award a next level development contract to two or three possible competitors. There’s a lot that can be done with low millions of euros, as long as it is allocated on a competitive basis.

  • Ian C.


    “speed up their timeline”

    As if they would want this. And if they did, what would they use it for? They’ve said last year that (competing in or contributing to) space colonization is not their plan [1]. Some ISS missions, some robotic probes and joint missions, much Earth observation against climate change, couple of tame and rather inconsequential “Moon Village” ideas. That’s a timeline into irrelevance, why speed that up?

    “There’s a lot that can be done with low millions of euros, as long as it is allocated on a competitive basis.”

    The bureaucratic domain name speaks for itself. And if not, look at the prizes and winners. That’s ESA.

    This is representative. ESA has several smaller competitions (“Copernicus Masters” [€620k in cash and noncash benefits] or “Galileo Masters” [€750k in cash and noncash benefits]) to utilize its satellite technologies or programs like “ESA Summer of Code in Space” where it sponsors software development. Keep it tame, cheap, and easy to control.

    Competitions with significant prizes and breakthrough results done by private companies smell “American” (i.e. bad, you know, cowboy mentality, turbo-capitalism, winner-takes-it-all and all that). They prefer picking winners and then integrate them into their bureaucratic processes (binding them to ESA’s speed and telling them what to work on).

    Perhaps I’m missing it and speak ill of ESA and it’s already there or coming, but it would require a significant and unlikely change in intention, mindset, and budget.

    [1] Jan Wörner (ESA DG) at IAC 2019:
    “I’m against colonization of the Moon or Mars bc means we are moving away entirely from Earth for rest of their life or generations. Neither Moon nor Mars are nice places. And some say we’re destroying Earth so should move to Mars. Bad excuse for not taking care of Earth.” (Space Policy Online Tweet)

  • Edward

    I side with Robert on this one. Arianespace and ESA were very happy for three decades flying paying commercial payloads. I suspect that anything they say to the contrary is more likely to be face-saving than policy. Either way, it is clear that they are joining the 21st century in reusability.

    From the article:

    “Themis will advance key technologies and demonstrate reusability capabilities in Europe. This will create additional options for lowering the cost of access to space and increase Europe’s flexibility to offer a variety of launch services,” commented Daniel Neuenschwander, ESA Director of Space Transportation.

    For all the companies and organizations that are working on reusability, the first step is to try out their concepts. For small rockets it can be parachutes, but for large rockets parachutes are not practicable. ArianeGroup, Blue Origin, and Reaction Engines may be far behind SpaceX, and their first launch vehicles may be more like Falcon 9 or Falcon Heavy than Starship, but Starship is showing everyone what the possibilities are. Even if Starship fails, it gives a target for the aspirations of others.

    There may be a lot of “fan boys” for SpaceX, but the upstart startup company is now a leader in the space launch business and it fast becoming a leader in the space communications business, so it is worthy of having fans. It is a good thing that other space companies are trying to emulate such a successful company.

  • Ian C.


    “I suspect that anything they say to the contrary is more likely to be face-saving than policy.”

    In recent five years they saw their market share getting eaten mostly by SpaceX and that they’re unable to catch up. Since then “independent, sovereign access to space” is policy, competing for business is secondary.
    All the talk about affordability is empty PR blather as it will still cost more and come to market way later. Starship will fly circles around their reusable prototype hopper.

    “It is a good thing that other space companies are trying to emulate such a successful company.”

    I’m looking forward to the many launcher businesses that are trying things out and have potential to grow into more than smallsat stuff. It’s just when political organizations are involved I fear the usual.

    See also my earlier comment on Ariane 6 and going reusable:

  • Edward

    Ian C.,
    All the talk about affordability is empty PR blather as it will still cost more and come to market way later.

    Maybe, but they are making a second move toward less costly launchers. Ariane 6 did not compete well, but everyone knew that when they announced it. Now they are moving to make their launchers even less costly.

    As I said, those who want to compete at all have to make their first moves sometime. Sooner is better than later, as ArianeGroup is making clear right now. ArianeGroup didn’t get what they wanted with Ariane 6, but they may be able to get it in the coming decade.

    It is more than just the smallsat launcher companies, Blue Origin is currently working on a large orbital launch vehicle, New Glenn, with at least a reusable first stage. They have suggested in the past that they would work on an Apollo class vehicle, probably called New Armstrong. If they are still flexible on that design, they may try something completely reusable, similar to Starship, and this could give them an opportunity to make it even less costly than Starship.

    In recent five years they saw their market share getting eaten mostly by SpaceX and that they’re unable to catch up.

    I keep getting the idea that people think SpaceX has won the launch business and everyone else should just pack up and go home, but we were thinking the same of Ariane thirty years ago. All it takes is inspiration, creativity, and innovation to beat the market leader. Never give up, never surrender. It took SpaceX about a decade to beat out everyone else. Reaction Engines is another contender, but they also have a long way to go before they start to compete.

  • Ian C.


    That’s all true and I agree. I want more launchers to choose from. Monopolies lead to arrogance and abuse. I’m just skeptical when the incentives are wrong (not competing on the market but for the government’s favors). I monitor the market and hope to have more to select from in the future. I’m willing to risk it with newcomers for the sake of supporting a healthy diversity of launch providers.

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