When a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket failed spectacularly a couple of minutes after lift-off from Cape Canaveral in June 2015, delivering many tens of millions of dollars’ worth of debris to the Atlantic Ocean rather than valuable cargo to the International Space Station, it is easy to imagine the company’s rivals took a deep breath and thought, “there but for the grace…”
As Elon Musk, the PayPal billionaire who went on to found SpaceX and electric car maker Tesla, noted during a subsequent briefing on what turned out to be a structural failure rather than an explosion, rocketry is an activity where a “passing score is 100% every time”. He added that the failure, which followed a run of 20 Falcon 9 successes over seven years, was a sign of “a company as a whole that has become a little complacent”.
One of his rivals is Stefano Bianchi who, like Musk, knows a lot about running an all-new rocket programme. As head of the European Space Agency’s Vega programme he spoke, on the eve of the light launcher’s 2012 maiden flight from Europe’s spaceport in French Guiana, of rockets being perhaps the most demanding of engineering challenges; any failure is spectacular – and there’s no hiding it.
In the end, Vega flew to perfection, and has continued its unblemished record through six missions. Now leading the ESA’s Ariane 6 programme to supersede its venerable Ariane 5 heavy launcher, Bianchi is sanguine about the technical challenge of replacing what has been a hugely successful vehicle. There is no complacency in his stance, however. Speaking exclusively to Flightglobal at ESA’s Paris headquarters, Bianchi notes that the space agency, its industrial partners and launch operator Arianespace have demonstrated enormous competence in rocket engineering and the requisite attention to detail and so can have reasonable confidence in their ability to bring Ariane 6 through its preliminary design review this year and to first launch in 2020.
For Bianchi and all the Ariane 6 partners, the really big challenge is not to engineer a better-performing rocket; it is to respond commercially to SpaceX. The same goes for the third big Western player, United Launch Alliance – the Boeing-Lockheed Martin joint venture with its Atlas V and Delta IV launchers which, like Ariane 5, are to be replaced by an in-development, modular launch system from about 2019. This much is obvious to anyone who has spent time around the launch industry over the past five or six years, as any discussion about space rockets has a habit of turning quickly to SpaceX; Falcon 9 is no special threat technically, but it is a clean-sheet project from a new US company unburdened by design or infrastructure legacy. The result is an efficient operation whose low prices have upended industry economics.
The Ariane 6 dilemma, then, is to match SpaceX prices in a European technical, industrial and market environment, and with the experience of a long flight history. Spelling out how that transition will be achieved, Bianchi says that Europe cannot do what SpaceX did in the same way SpaceX did it, but it can still be disruptive – by designing for cost as much as for performance.
Europe’s Ariane programme has long been a technical and market leader. Ariane 5 has flown 84 times and, as of January, had racked up a string of 70 perfect launches (the 1996 maiden flight failed and flight 14, in 2002, was intentionally destroyed following a guidance malfunction 456sec after launch). Over nearly 230 flights dating back to the first Ariane 1 launch in 1979, Ariane series rockets have orbited half of the world’s telecommunications satellites, certainly the most valuable of commercial payloads. With its ability to lift up to 10t to geostationary orbit, Ariane 5 can lift the biggest telecommunications satellites, today weighing around 6t, to the highest orbits and have room for a secondary payload.
In other applications, Ariane 5 has been a regular visitor to the International Space Station, and when the NASA-ESA James Webb Space Telescope launches in 2018, it will be hefted to deep space on an Ariane 5 flight from French Guiana.
It is fair to say such performance and reliability does not come cheaply. And, while clients like telecommunications companies obviously want to save money, what they value most is reliability and precision placement of their payloads, which is where Ariane 5 shines. But cost has become an industry-defining issue. Falcon 9 can’t match the payload capacity of Ariane 5, but it orbits smaller payloads – including mid-sized telecoms satellites – at much lower prices. An Ariane 5 flight costs €150-200 million ($165-220 million), while a Falcon 9 ride to space is thought to be available for as little as $70 million.
Whether SpaceX can hold such prices while attending to any potential reliability issues and developing new products such as reusable stages and its heavy variant remains to be seen but, regardless, the price gap is huge. Ariane 5 can close that gap by exploiting its dual payload potential, but lining up two compatible, paying customers is not always possible. Meanwhile, Arianespace is understood to need public subsidy to cover total launch campaign costs.
At stake is Europe’s independent access to space, long deemed a capability of strategic importance by the European Commission. But as Alain Charmeau, chief executive of Ariane 6 prime contractor Airbus Safran Launchers (ASL), explains, the market for a European launcher is “significantly different” than for US, Russian or Chinese rivals owing to the size of the so-called institutional market. Government customers in the USA, Russia or China have volume, buying 20 or more launches yearly, a figure not matched by the ESA, the European Commission (Galileo navigation satellite flights, for example) or weather service Eumetsat. As a result, he says, the European launcher industry must be competitive to survive.
This cost crisis has focused minds in Europe’s space industry for several years. When ministers from ESA member state governments met in Naples in late 2012 to agree a five-year budget and objectives, the headline outcome was the go-ahead order to flesh out plans for Ariane 6. The broad order from ministers was to cut launch costs roughly in half, with a new launcher capable of flying 12 times a year for €70 million per flight, starting in 2020. That objective hasn’t changed, but the means to that end have moved dramatically in the past three-and-a-bit years.
Bianchi describes the recurring cost objectives as a “kind of revolution”. But while the original plan for Ariane 6 involved a radical new launcher built from solid fuel modules, the programme is – or has become – a revolution behind the scenes. That is, when Ariane 6 appears its technical configuration will, in broad terms, be similar to Ariane 5; the radical part will be the industrial structure, the design process, ownership of the launch operation and, critically, the shifting of commercial and cost risk from the public sector to privately-owned ASL.
The configuration of Ariane 6 was originally to be very different from Ariane 5. Instead of a main stage powered by cryogenic fuel – liquefied hydrogen and oxygen kept in separate tanks until mixed at the nozzle with explosive results – and strap-on solid fuel boosters, Ariane 6 was to feature solid-fuel main stages and boosters. Both current and proposed configurations feature a liquid fuel upper stage; once started, solids burn until empty, while liquid fuel motors can be throttled, shut off and restarted – necessary performance for precise payload placement.
To bridge the gap to Ariane 6, Ariane 5 was to get an ME – Midlife Extension – upgrade that would increase geostationary payload to 12t, enough to carry two of the largest telecoms satellites. A new, restartable upper stage being developed for the ME would also top Ariane 6.
Ariane 6 as originally conceived may well have gone on to be a technical triumph and cut ongoing costs. The basic concept, of batch-building solid fuel stages for assembly as required, would have greatly streamlined rocket production and offered, on assembly, a tidy pick-and-mix approach to performance. But that early excitement was quickly overshadowed by fears that no revolution in rocket configuration could make up for the inherently high costs built into Europe’s launcher industry. By the end of 2013, when Airbus Group – at that time still called EADS – was proposing heavy job cuts at its struggling defence and space division, chief executive Tom Enders warned of even more job losses if Europe persisted with its standard, politically-motivated, cost-duplicating approach to projects like Ariane, which was to divide work up between companies in all the countries that contributed to the budget.
Even Ariane 6, he said, “cannot work in such an unwieldy industrial environment”. A few months earlier, at the 2013 Paris air show Charmeau, who at that time was head of space transportation at EADS’s Astrium unit – the Ariane 5 prime contractor – summed up the situation succinctly: Europe employed too many people to build rockets.
This “unwieldy structure” was exactly what Elon Musk wasn’t doing and Europe got the message. The solution, to use Bianchi’s word, is indeed a revolution. In a move which mirrors the decision by Airbus Group shareholders France and Germany to step back from influencing management decisions and free the former EADS to operate as a normal commercial enterprise, Airbus and Safran, the Ariane propulsion specialist, were authorised to form, in December 2014, a joint venture – Airbus Safran Launchers – to consolidate the Ariane programme.
Charmeau sums up the change in terms of control. While the Ariane 5 industrial structure was determined by national governments, the Ariane 6 equivalent is an ASL proposal. Production is being streamlined by establishing centres of competence, for metallic structures, composites, etc. Contractual relationships with fuel specialist Air Liquide and Avio – in Italy and which leads the Vega programme and, as explained below, will supply Ariane 6 solid boosters – are also simplified.
The other big piece of the commercial costs puzzle is the launch. As part of the programme consolidation plan, ASL is set to take control of Arianespace, by buying the heavy third owned by France’s CNES space agency – thus becoming responsible for providing rockets and launching them, at a fixed cost not underwritten by European taxpayers.
As for the actual rocket, engineers continued to discuss configurations beyond the Naples ministerial. The design settled on in late 2015 looks very much like what would probably have been chosen in 2012 if all parties – ESA and its member state governments, the European Commission, industry – had started out with the idea they would overhaul the industrial structure as well as redesign the rocket. The modular Ariane 6 design, finalised at the end of 2015 and now heading for a spring or early summer preliminary design review, features a liquid-fuel main stage based on Ariane 5’s, and either two or four solid-fuel boosters that will double as the main stages of an updated Vega – Vega C – which will fly later this decade.
The two-booster “62” configuration is intended for single-payload flights, while the four-booster “64” version will be used for two medium-class payloads or single payloads of the largest mass. By sharing stages, Ariane 6 and Vega C will be a true family of launchers, whose range of capabilities will allow for the phasing out of the mid-weight Soyuz, which fills the gap between Vega and Ariane 5.
Bianchi’s notion of designing for cost as well as performance, which he describes as “a new mindset”, is being realised in highly visible ways. One type of solid fuel motor will double as Ariane 6 boosters and Vega C's main stage, compared to two today. Ariane 6, like Soyuz, will be prepared horizontally rather than vertically, which will cut days of work out of a launch campaign. Horizontal rocket assembly and payload integration will not only mean each launch campaign takes less time in French Guyana, it will also require fewer, and lower maintenance, buildings.
The Ariane 5ME project has been ended, but Ariane 6 will use the Vinci restartable engine developed for it, along with machinery bought for the upgrade programme.
DRIVING THE PROGRAMME
Bianchi is unusually well-suited to the Ariane 6 challenge. He was involved in Ariane 5, which was developed following Ariane 4 but with relatively little continuity, involving major technical changes such as three all-new engines. He also led Vega, which as a clean-sheet, small-team project bears at least some parallel to Falcon 9. Indeed, he notes, Vega development costs were very low even by US standards.
Bianchi has some insight to the challenges and opportunities of a ground-up disruptor like SpaceX, but also understands what he calls the “top down” approach needed for a project like Ariane 6. We will, he says, take the “extremely successful European experience”, which has made Ariane the clear leader in launches to geostationary orbit and seen no failure in years, and turn it into a more cost-competitive launch service.
For now, 2016 is a crucial year. At the preliminary design review, ESA member states will confirm the launcher is on course to meet high-level requirements, particularly design and cost, and agree on early launches. Echoing Charmeau’s emphasis on the need for Ariane 6 to satisfy the needs of the European institutional market, Bianchi emphasises this investment in launch procurements is as important as industry investment in assuring the launcher can be developed to operate without public subsidy.
Assuming work remains on course, an ESA Council meeting in September should decide to keep the programme moving ahead. In August 2015 ASL was granted a contract set at €2.4bn through full operability in 2023, including €680 million to reach the design review. The total Ariane 6 budget is €3 billion, including €400m of industrial investment; the rest is shared with development of Vega C.
Both Bianchi and Charmeau are fully optimistic Ariane 6 will fly as planned in 2020, which despite the past three years of upheaval represents a tightening up of the timetable sketched out at that ESA ministerial in Naples. The plan is for one flight in 2020, three or four in 2021 and six to seven in 2022, with Ariane 6 becoming fully operational – that is, ready for a full slate of 12 flights – in 2023.
Thus the final flight of Ariane 5 will come during 2022. But, notes Charmeau, ASL will continue to improve Ariane 5 – and he promises “good news later this year” about performance. One planned development is the ability to orbit four Galileo satellites from one launch, doubling the two Soyuz can handle.
This new industrial and launch service structure, along with the careful mixing of innovation and technical continuity from Ariane 5 and Vega, and regard for the needs of institutional customers, explains much of what ESA director general Jan Woerner means when he talks about a “European way”. As he noted in January at his 2016 press briefing, there is no single “magic formula of global validity” to the question of why develop and operate launchers – the answer to which guides their design.
Whatever the particular European solution in terms of rocket configuration and performance, there’s no question Europe is taking a new, indeed European, approach to launcher development. Woerner also stressed launcher development is, or at least is now, a continuous process. Bianchi does warn against making too much of very beefy “Ariane Y” and “Vega Z” models that appeared in one of Woerner’s presentation slides – because engineers love to talk about rocket configurations – but that notion of continuous development that builds on strength is clearly a driving force.
As Charmeau notes, work is already under way on next-generation cryogenic engines that will cost a tenth of today’s models, and a reusable “next generation” – that is, beyond Ariane 6 – could be flying around 2030. Indeed, he says, “continuous development” is what has been missing from the Ariane 5 programme; work started in 1985, but until three years ago there was no “roadmap”.
Or, as Bianchi puts it, if you are Ferrari and Porsche launches a super-competitive new model, what do you do? You don’t, he says, build a Porsche – you build a better Ferrari: “We know our launchers are the best. The craziest thing we could do is throw everything away and start over.”