Some European launch officials are still stuck in the sand

Zoom in / The first stage of an Ariane 6 rocket at the European Spaceport in Kourou in the overseas department of French Guiana, on March 26, 2024.

Ludovic Marin/AFP via Getty Images

there was discussion ring At a space conference held in Singapore 11 years ago, which has since become legendary in some corners of the space industry for what it reveals about European attitudes toward the startup SpaceX.

The panel included representatives from a few launch companies, including Europe-based Arianespace and US launch company SpaceX. At one point during the discussion, the host asked an Arianespace representative — its Southeast Asia sales president, Richard Bowles — how the European corporate company would respond to SpaceX’s promise of lower launch and reusability costs with the Falcon 9 rocket.

“What I’m finding in the market is that SpaceX seems primarily to be selling a dream, which is a good thing,” Bowles answered. “We should all be dreaming.” “I think a $5 million launch or a $15 million launch is a dream. Personally, I think reuse is a dream. How would I respond to a dream? My answer to responding to a dream is, first of all, ‘You don’t wake people up.'”

To be fair to Bowles, at the time of his remarks, SpaceX had only launched the Falcon 9 rocket five times by mid-2013. But his concession was nonetheless noteworthy.

Later in the discussion, Bowles added that he didn’t think launching 100 times a year, which SpaceX had begun talking about, was “realistic.” Then, in a highly paternal moment, he turned to the SpaceX official on the panel and said, “You shouldn’t present things that are unrealistic.”

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In response, Barry Matsumori, a senior vice president at SpaceX, calmly said he would allow his company to respond through its actions.

Actions speak louder than words

Eleven years later, of course, SpaceX He is Launched more than 100 times a year. The company’s internal price tag for a Falcon 9 launch is well under $20 million. All of this is possible by reusing the rocket’s first stage and payload interfaces, each of which has now proven its ability to fly 20 or more times.

One would think that European launch officials in the decade that followed would have learned their lesson. Last year, the continent had to resort to launching the valuable Euclid Space Telescope on a Falcon 9 rocket. This year, because the new European Ariane 6 rocket was not yet ready after countless delays, several Galileo satellites have been launched and will be launched on a rocket. Falcon 9.

Some officials have taken note of this. in Honest comment last yearEuropean Space Agency chief Joseph Aschbacher admitted the continent faced a “severe” launch crisis amid Ariane 6 delays and the rise of SpaceX as a launch competitor. “SpaceX has undoubtedly changed the model of the launch market as we know it,” Aschbacher wrote. “With the dependable reliability of Falcon 9 and the attractive prospects of Starship, SpaceX continues to completely redefine the world’s access to space, pushing the boundaries of possibility as it goes.”

But it seems that the message did not reach everyone.

Next month, the Ariane 6 rocket is finally scheduled to make its debut. It will likely be successful. Europe has excellent technical capabilities regarding launch. But from day one, the Ariane 6 launch vehicle will cost much more than the Falcon 9 rocket, which has similar capabilities and does not offer reusability. It will certainly meet Europe’s institutional needs. But this likely won’t shake up the market, and won’t realistically compete with the fully reusable Falcon 9 rocket.

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Who really needs to wake up?

What about the spacecraft? If SpaceX can bring it to market, the next-generation rocket will deliver a fully reusable booster with five times the lift capacity of the Ariane 6 rocket at half its cost or less. How can Europe hope to compete with that? ESA’s space transportation director, Toni Tolker-Nielsen, who works for Aschbacher, said he was not worried.

“Honestly, I don’t think Starship is going to be a game changer or a real competitor,” he said. Interview with Space News“This huge rocket is designed to take people to the Moon and Mars. The Ariane 6 rocket is perfect for this mission if you need to launch a four- or five-ton satellite. The Starship rocket will never be able to take down the Ariane 6 rocket.”

On the one hand, Tolker-Nielsen is right. The spacecraft won’t change the way Europe sends its small and medium-sized satellites into space. The Ariane 6 rocket, built and launched in Europe, will be the continent’s backbone. In fact, some European officials go as far as Lobbying to enforce legislation Launched by European satellites on European missiles.

But to say that Starship won’t be a game-changer represents the same attitude that Bowles demonstrated a decade ago with his jokes about not waking deluded dreamers. In hindsight, it’s clear that the dreamers were not SpaceX or its customers. Rather, they were European officials who lulled themselves into believing that their dominance in commercial launches would continue in the absence of innovation.

While they slept, these officials ignored the advent of reusability. They decided that the Ariane 6 rocket should look like its expendable predecessors, with solid rocket boosters. Meanwhile, after the advent of the Falcon 9 rocket, almost all new rocket projects included a significant reusability component. It’s no longer just SpaceX founder Elon Musk who says companies need to pursue reuse or perish. Almost everyone.

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Maybe someone should wake Tolker Nielsen up.

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