European Space Agency director general Jean-Jacques Dordain has underscored the agency’s confidence that it can meet the ambitious cost and performance targets set for its all-new Ariane 6 heavy launcher.
But Dordain, speaking at his ILA Berlin air show press briefing, made no secret of the challenge ahead as he and his ESA colleagues push to firm up the design of the rocket that must not only replace the hugely successful Ariane 5, but do so at less than half the cost.
Dordain’s “duty” is to go to the December 2014 Luxembourg meeting of ESA member state science and industry ministers with a firm plan that will convince them to continue funding the project. Ariane 6 was greenlighted at the ESA ministerial meeting in Naples in November 2012, which tasked Dordain with delivering a launcher that could fly nine times a year and cost €70 million per launch, from 2021.
Failure, he adds, would be “dramatic” for the entire European space industry.
Ariane 5 has been a technical and commercial triumph – providing virtually flawless performance over dozens of launches and orbiting about half of the world’s telecommunications satellites – but a single payload launch costs as much as €200 million. That cost burden has been thrown into sharp relief by the entry of SpaceX into the launch market at costs on a par with Ariane 6 targets.
Part of the Ariane 6 cost-reduction plan is to do away with liquid fuel main stages for an all-solid and modular design (pictured) – essentially an assembly of stages from ESA’s new Vega light launcher, first flown in 2012. But the critical ingredient will be to move away from the unwieldy industrial organisation behind Ariane 5, which was designed not for efficiency but to satisfy European political realities that match national governments’ financial input with workshare.
Dordain confirms that Ariane 6 will have to be built through no more than three “integration sites”: one each in France, Germany and Italy.
Meanwhile, he downplayed reports of calls to reopen the design of Ariane 6, whose basic solid-fuel configuration was agreed last year. While he is always open to ideas, he says, careful study before the 2012 ministerial established that this basic concept was the only way to meet cost targets: “There are not hundreds of ways to do this.”
Dordain expects further design discussion to end by July, when he will make what amounts to a progress report at a “mini-ministerial” meeting of ESA’s largest members.
The other challenge bearing on Dordain, who will retire from ESA at the end of the year, is budgetary. Member states, particularly Germany, have given him a “clear signal” that the Ariane 6 project will have to be run in a flat 2015-2024 “budget corridor” of about €850 million per year, the same as has been spent during the past couple of years.