More delays for first test hops of Europe’s Themis reusable first stage

Par for the course: The first test hops of Europe’s Themis demonstrator reusable first stage, first proposed in 2018, have now been delayed until 2025.

In a May 2024 presentation given at the International Civil Aviation Organization offices in Paris, the Swedish Space Corporation (SSC) announced that initial Themis hop tests would only begin next year. SSC is in charge of the operation of Esrange Space Centre in Sweden, where these initial tests of an integrated Themis demonstrator will begin. Once ArianeGroup moves onto higher altitude flights, the testing will be moved to the Guiana Space Centre.

The demonstrator itself is being built by a partnership of the private company ArianeGroup (Airbus and Safran) and the French space agency CNES, and was originallly supposed to begin test hops in 2022. These delays are typical of European government-run space operations. Note too that this is not a usable first stage, merely a demonstrator. For it to become operational it will have to be rebuilt.

None of this should be a surprise, since the man who runs Arianespace and is likely a key player in all this work, Stephan Israel, said in 2023 this stage would not become operational until the 2030s. Israel has been hostile to reusability from day one, and apparently is having some influence in slowing or blocking this development.

By the time this reusable first stage flies, it will be entirely obsolete and an utter waste of money, at least from a business and profit point of view. It will however have served these bankrupt companies and space agencies well as an empty jobs program, accomplishing little but make-work.

ArianeGroup chosen by Europe to develop reusable rockets

The new colonial movement: The European Commission, which makes the major decisions for the European Space Agency, has chosen the European commercial company ArianeGroup to run two programs designed to produce that continent’s first reusable rocket.

From the press release [pdf]:

The SALTO project will facilitate the first flight tests of the Themis reusable stage demonstrator in Kiruna, Sweden. The ENLIGHTEN project will speed up the development and introduction of reusable engine technologies.

The main goal of SALTO will be to develop the kind of vertical landing technology that SpaceX now does routinely. ENLIGHTEN in turn will develop rocket engines using either methane or hydrogen as the fuel. The total budget allocated for both is just under 50 million euros, which seems quite small. The press release also made no mention of a schedule for accomplishing these tasks.

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.