Europe suddenly realizes that reusable rockets are possible and economical

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The head of the European Space Agency (ESA) has admitted in his blog that the agency’s future rockets, Ariane 6 and Vega C, are not going to be competitive because they will not be reusable.

The promise to secure autonomous access to space and reduce the price by a factor of 2 proved sufficiently compelling to secure ESA member states’ agreement to finance the development. At that time, I succeeded in placing environmental concerns and the possible development of reusability among the high-level requirements:

  • Maintain and ensure European launcher competence with a long-term perspective, including possibility of reusability/fly-back.
  • Ensure possibility to deorbit upper stage directly

Due to time and cost pressure, however, these aspects did not make it onto the agenda for Ariane 6 and Vega C. Yet in the meantime, the world has moved on and today’s situation requires that we re-assess the situation and identify the possible consequences. In many discussions on the political level, the strategic goal of securing European autonomous access to space has not changed, however there is a growing sense that pressure from global competition is something that needs to be addressed. With Vega C, Ariane 62 and Ariane 64 approaching completion, it seems logical to complete these launchers in order to at least take that major step towards competitiveness. At the same time, it is essential that we now discuss future solutions, including disruptive ideas. Simply following the kind of approaches seen so far would be expensive and ultimately will fail to convince. Totally new ideas are needed and Europe must now prove it still possesses that traditional strength to surpass itself and break out beyond existing borders. In this sense, the process of discussing and deciding on a launcher system that eschews traditional solutions can send a powerful signal out into other areas as well. I therefore intend to invite innovative, really interested European players to come together to define possible ways forward. [emphasis mine]

Let me translate his bureaucratic wording: “We didn’t think reuseable rockets were practical, economical, or even possible. We took a safe route in designing Ariane 6 and Vega C. We screwed up, and now face a competitive market in which our rockets cannot compete. Thus, we need to move fast to copy the private sector, SpaceX and Blue Origin in particular, or face serious financial consequences.

Unless he forces some major cultural changes in ESA, however, I expect that by the time this government-run operation manages to duplicate the achievements of those two private companies, those companies will have marched on to even more innovative successes.



  • Kyle

    If private Space isnt a clear cut example as to the superiority of capitalism, then I do not know what is.

  • Localfluff

    I succeeded in placing environmental concerns and the possible development of reusability among the high-level requirements

    THAT, feeding the climate deluge myth, is the top priority goal of ESA, Arianespace’s crucial customer, with sending stuff to space just as a cover-up. I don’t see at all how there could be any large European launchers after Ariane 6 is canceled because of its great financial losses and the uninterested politicians. Airbus themselves seem to understand that they cannot compete on a market.

  • @ Localfluff:

    Yes, what Mr. Worner (sorry about the umlaut) is saying in so many words is that ESA is a way to funnel tax dollars to the Government – AGW complex. Meanwhile, in the real world, private launchers are rising and sea levels are not. Huh. I’m sure Mr. Worner can look forward to a comfortable future as Europe and it’s people become ever less competitive as a direct result of decisions he and his fellow travelers made. But that’s OK; they made the right noises.

  • Andrew_W

    With re-usability comes the possibility of truly separating the rocket owner/operator from the manufacturer, if SpaceX doesn’t do this someone else will as undoubtedly such a separation would lead to even more competition and the ability to reduce the cost to orbit even further than would otherwise be the case. The Europeans need to look at least as much at new business models as new rockets if they’re to remain in the space industry.

  • Edward

    Andrew_W wrote: “With re-usability comes the possibility of truly separating the rocket owner/operator from the manufacturer, if SpaceX doesn’t do this someone else will as undoubtedly such a separation would lead to even more competition and the ability to reduce the cost to orbit even further than would otherwise be the case.

    How true this can be. Someone here once linked to a story about the Boeing 707, including how it almost lost out to the DC-8, because Boeing did not want to make a change that customers clamored for. Boeing eventually relented, made the change, and the 7X7 series became wildly successful.

    Robert linked to it!
    [The DC-8] also had one other advantage – which turned out to be a big one – it was wider. Not by much – but enough for the airlines to put in six-abreast seating. They wanted that. Boeing didn’t. Boeing had already changed the body diameter once. … This was gut check time. Everything that followed, all of Boeing’s commercial business over the next half-century hung in the balance – although the participants could not have known that. The dominance that would de-throne Douglas and make the word Boeing a generic dictionary term for jetliner. … Boeing blinked and became a whole new company. American [Airlines] got their 148.5 inches. They ordered 50 airplanes. Having jumped into the pool, Boeing now went hog-wild in customer responsiveness.

    The customers, the airline operators, drove the design for better efficiency and capability in their operations. The manufacturers that complied got the orders. The same could happen in the rocket world.

    The DC-8 had a bigger wing and more range. Boeing designed a new bigger wing and called it the -320 Intercontinental. The 707 was too small – Boeing stretched it. The DC-8 had the more powerful JT-4 engines – Boeing installed the more powerful engines. … In the 10 years from 1956 to 1966, Boeing had remade itself, and the commercial airplane world, and Planet Earth.

  • Mike Borgelt

    “lead free” solder tells you all you need to know about the euroweenies. The EU is the greatest threat to freedom at present.

  • Localfluff

    Re-usability is too hard for them. They must focus to even achieve usability.

    @Mike Borgelt
    The mentality of the Europeans is the problem. The EU has no real power. Regardless of what it is called, it is just a multilateral advisory cooperation where the member countries in fact make all the decisions. Member government that doesn’t like what the EU decides, simply ignores them in that respect and do as they like. Even Germany with strong economy cheated against the stipulated Euro currency requirements on deficit and debt, the cheating that caused the debt crash in South Europe 10 years ago. And now governments with a wish to live ignores the EU requirement to import this and that many million islamic terrorists. In business all is about how to cheat the millions of regulations of everything (famously also of how curved bananas are allowed to be) and how to cheat to get cash grants form the inept bureaucrats.

    The US is much stronger as a federation, basically because you have a legal system and you actually use it. In Europe the mentality is still that the Fürst-government does whatever he pleases. Europeans (like me) complain but don’t act.

  • Mike Borgelt

    No real power? The Kommissars issue an edict that from a certain date all solder must not contain lead. As the EU is a substantial market all manufacturers of electronics in the world were forced to switch at vast expense world wide or they could not sell into the EU. Lead free solder is a vastly inferior product as shown by the exemptions (now slowly being withdrawn for some uses) given at the time for aviation, medical and military electronics.
    Unfortunately the EU and its regulations is also used as a model for legislation in other countries. See Australia’s civil aviation regulatory system, now modeled on the ridiculous EASA one instead of the FAA.
    Europeans are serfs.

  • Edward

    Mike Borgelt wrote: “Europeans are serfs.

    Haven’t they always been?

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