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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.