Europe admits that its planned accelerated upgrades to Ariane 5 are intended to counteract the competition from both Russia’s Proton and SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rockets.


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The competition heats up: At a briefing at the Paris Air Show this week Arianespace admitted that its planned accelerated upgrades to Ariane 5 are intended to counteract the competition from both Russia’s Proton and SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rockets.

I love competition. It energizes everything.

Update: This long article specifically discusses how Arianespace is scrambling to meet the competition. Key quote:

“The key question for Ariane 6 is not really the design of the booster. The key question is how to organize the industry and the relationship between agencies and industries in order to deliver a launcher to a given target price. And we have never done that before in Europe,” said [Arianespace CEO Stephane] Israel, speaking through a translator. [emphasis added]

That the CEO of Arianespace thinks no one in Europe has ever competed on the open market before this is quite astonishing. It suggests that he and his company has been quite insulated from financial reality. Moreover, this quote suggests that until Elon Musk came along, an entire American generation of rocket builders was equally insulated:

U.S. companies had a monopoly in the field 30 years ago, but no longer. The low point came in 2011, when not a single satellite operator besides the U.S. government chose a U.S. company for a ride to space.

Considering how little Arianespace has tried to lower costs in the past, it is shameful no one attempted to undercut them until now.

One final point: The article spins the history of SpaceX to make it sound as if it was NASA’s idea to create this competition. That couldn’t be more wrong. It wasn’t the government, it was Musk that did it. He was eventually helped by his government contract, but that was issued reluctantly and against the wishes of much of NASA’s bureaucracy. Even now there are strong forces in Congress and NASA that would like to kill this commercial effort because it threatens the cushy expensive government way of doing things, illustrated nicely by Israel’s quote above.

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3 comments

  • Dick Eagleson

    Elon is going to go through the incumbent launch providers like Patton went through France and Belgium, quickly and inexorably.

    ULA will exit the launcher business when SpaceX takes the USAF birds away. I think this will be acquiesced to because the USAF wants to buy planes more than it wants to maintain overpriced sweetheart deals for the Atlas and Delta. USAF will explain to Boeing and Lockmart that they can either keep selling their overpriced throw-away boosters and sell fewer airplanes, or the converse. With the federal budget the disaster area it is and will remain for years, the old-line primes will take this deal and avail themselves of the opportunity to reduce their overheads by ridding themselves of their white elephant booster operations.

    As a side comment, I note that the current ULA monopoly makes zero sense from a national security standpoint anyway. Both the Atlas and Delta have deep Russian-controlled supply chains. This would have been regarded – quite properly – as suicidally idiotic during the Cold War. Given renewed Russian hostility to U.S. interests in the Putin era, and their oft-demonstrated willingness to use trade in monopoly commodites as a foreign policy stick, it is again suicidally idiotic. The only launch provider that domestically sources all of its components is SpaceX. They should get all the U.S. gov’t. national security payload business on that basis alone, but it’s nice they’re also cheap.

    Arianespace will go away because they can’t match SpaceX prices without cutting overhead. But cutting overhead would be to abandon the principal rationale for establishing Arianespace in the first place; to be an expensive welfare program for European aerospace engineers and builders. The bloated overhead of European aerospace isn’t an unfortunate side effect, it’s the intended effect. As the Eurozone melts down, the whole wasteful project becomes untenable, especially as Germany becomes the only really solvent nation in the combine.

    The Russians will get similarly underbid by SpaceX. They’ll keep launching their own, dwindling gov’t. payloads on Soyuz and Proton, but their now-profitable external business will disappear. The shaky Russian economy will make subsidizing foreign launcher sales for prestige preservation a non-starter. Expect to hear no more of the big talk they’ve been doing lately about new launchers and new space initiatives.

    In a related development, when ULA crumbles, it will take the recently formed Aerojet-Rocketdyne with it too, as that firm is now basically just the U.S. marketing arm of the Russian rocket motor industry. The loss of both their largest customers and their main supplier will prove promptly fatal. Orbital Sciences may have to abandon Antares if it can’t find or build an alternative to the Brezhnev-surplus AJ-26 that now powers its first stage. If Stratolaunch succeeds, though, Orbital may well make up for any losses on Antares by ramping up production of launchers for the SL platform. Personally, I hope so.

    So within five years I see SpaceX the dominant worldwide launch provider. Stratolaunch/Orbital Sciences will be a distant second with a solid presence in the quick response, oddball orbit and high end of the low end satellite niches. Virgin Galactic, XCOR and maybe Armadillo, Masten, Garvey and other suborbital service providers will also do a good business in quick response low-end orbital launches of vehicles ranging from cubesats up to bigger birds of a few hundred pounds mass.

  • “So within five years I see SpaceX the dominant worldwide launch provider. Stratolaunch/Orbital Sciences will be a distant second with a solid presence in the quick response, oddball orbit and high end of the low end satellite niches. Virgin Galactic, XCOR and maybe Armadillo, Masten, Garvey and other suborbital service providers will also do a good business in quick response low-end orbital launches of vehicles ranging from cubesats up to bigger birds of a few hundred pounds mass.”

    All private concerns, I note. I really hope that your analysis is somewhat close to the mark, but ‘five years’ is an aggressive time frame. I do think that the rise of a ‘Golden Age’ in space access will do more to spur young people to MSET careers than all government programs combined. We’re in a real race: will the visionaries who will get us off the planet win, or those who want to turn humanity into a mass of planet-bound naval-gazing socialists? Right now; too close to call.

  • Jose

    Why not count on an indigenously European commercial venture?
    Once SpaceX proves there is money to be made launching satellites in a truly competitive and commercial way, there will be investors willing to back an ITAR free company.
    Talent is much less expensive in Europe, specially Southern Europe, and overhead costs can be kept much lower in a purely private European venture than in a NASA-subsidized company like SpaceX…
    Such company could lure the remaining rockstars from Ariane, giving them shares and a chance to beat SpaceX…
    The fact that it has not happened yet is no indication for the future…

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