Airbus, Safran join forces to beat SpaceX at low-cost rockets game

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The two leading industrial players in European rocketry have launched an aggressive bid to tackle a cost crisis brought on by US start-up SpaceX – by consolidating Europe’s space launch industry into a single company spanning concept through design, production and launch.

Airbus Defence & Space and Safran – the prime contractor and propulsion prime respectively for Europe’s Ariane 5 heavylift rocket and its upcoming successor, Ariane 6 – are this year to set up a 50-50 joint venture that also seeks to control Europe’s launch operator, Arianespace. Arianespace runs Europe’s spaceport at Kourou, French Guiana, under the jurisdiction of France’s CNES space agency.

In a single concept-to-flight company, it is hoped that Ariane 6 can achieve its target of flying nine times yearly for €70 million per launch, from 2021. Ariane 5 is hugely reliable and has been a market success, orbiting half of the world’s telecommunications satellites, but it is very expensive owing to a complicated industrial structure born of Europe’s traditional practice of rewarding with workshare the many nations that contribute to programme development costs.

A single-payload flight costs €150-200 million and, even with subsidies, Arianespace loses money on each flight. SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket is not a threat technically, but the business was built for efficiency and undercuts Ariane 5 by about 30%.

All parties agree that to achieve similar efficiencies depends on an industrial structure as radical as Ariane 6’s all-solid fuel design concept.

According to Safran’s head of space, Jean-Lin Fournereaux, the joint venture concept reflects agreement with the European Space Agency that Ariane 6 work must be restricted to no more than six countries – 12 participate in Ariane 5. And, he says, the new deal should even benefit the Ariane 5 ME upgrade, by bringing first flight forward into 2017, from 2018.

The significance of the joint venture was underscored by French president François Hollande, who invited Ariane stakeholders to the Elysée Palace to mark the signing of the Airbus-Safran agreement. France has traditionally led Europe’s launcher programmes, and about 50% of each Ariane 5 is made in the country.