The German Research Agency, the DLR, gave up pushing for a Moonlander spacecraft to be included in European Space Agency’s (ESA) budget proposals currently being discussed at ministerial meeting being held in Naples, Italy. Germany admitted that it could not gain financing from other nations for the circa 500 million euro project which it had championed. While some jested that this would at least stop the Germans from putting a towel on board to book all the sunbeds on the Moon, in fact Germany was “boxing-clever” by letting the under-supported Moonlander project die in order to get what it wanted on other programmes. Specifically, Germany had been pushing for the Mid-life Evolution (ME) upgrade programme to the Ariane 5 launch vehicle against French opposition who, as they noted the competitive threat of the SpaceX Falcon 9 series, wanted instead to start with development of a low-cost follow-on to Ariane 5, a modular expendable rocket called Ariane 6.
“Eurofudge” has both Ariane 5 and Ariane 6 going forward
In the end, a Euro-fudge both sides had both sides getting their way with Ariane 5 ME upgrade going ahead but whith detailed design work on the new Ariane 6 at least started. There is some commonality between both programmes. The new Ariane 5 ME will have a restartable version of the cryogenic Liquid oxygen (lox)/liquid hydrogen burning Vinci upper stage engine with an extendable nozzle which should increase the rocket’s payload by 20%. A version of this engine is likely to be also used by the Ariane 6 which will use a solid first stage and boosters.
Ariane 6 design concept Courtesy: ESA/C.Vijoux
UK becomes major player in satcoms program
On the sidelines of this argument was the United Kingdom (UK) which has little involvement in space transportation, save for its interest in ESA’s reusable research programme via the UK’s Reaction Engines firm which may now suffer now that most launcher related funds are being directed to both the Ariane 5 and Ariane 6 programmes. Nevertheless, on other ESA programmes the UK has become a winner even before the ministerial meeting had started. Having agreed to increase its annual contribution to ESA by £60 million, the UK government was gratified to learn that ESA’s centre of expertise for satellite telecommuications was being moved from ESA’s ESTEC technical centre in Noordwijk in the Netherlands, to the new ESA centre at Harwell, in Oxfordshire, England.
UK puts toe back into manned spaceflight water via Orion service module
In addition, as part of this contribution, the UK will finally be taking part in a manned spaceflight programme as it has apportioned £16 mllion (€20 million) of its ESA contribution to ESA’s own contribution to the NASA Orion exploration vehicle’s service module programme. The United Kindgom would specifically be involved in producing the propulsion and telecommunications elements of the craft. ESA is building this service module for NASA as part of its owed “rent” for using the International Space Station. The service module will be based on design used for the ESA ATV cargo craft which stopped flying after five flights.
The investment in this joint NASA/ESA manned programme represents the first time since 1960 that the United Kingdom has financed manned spaceflight. This new funding could one day allow a UK astronaut to get to the Moon or even Mars and perhaps initially to the International Space Station which the UK had previously opted out from funding.
Exomars is “go” with Russian help
There remains concern about the strength of collaborative programmes between ESA and NASA however. This was after NASA withdrew launch vehicle funding for the joint Exomars programme. At the Naples meeting, it was formally agreed that Russia would take over this role and provide the Exomars two mission programme with two Proton launches, a rover descent stage and instrumentation for the initial orbiter and lander mission. Despite no longer offering launches for the mission, NASA is still participating by providing communications for the orbiterdue to launch in January 2016 and the finance a joint soil sampling insrument for the rover mission in April 2018. A formal contract between ESA and Russia’s space agency, Roscosmos, is expected to be signed shortly.
Note: The writer of this article has a small shareholding in Reaction Engines Limited.