European space ministers will meet on 27 May to agree a rescue package for the region's launch vehicle sector. The European Space Agency proposes spending €550 million ($617 million) to return the uprated Ariane 5 ECA to flight and €190 million a year to support Arianespace until it becomes financially viable.

Meanwhile, US Department of Defense (DoD) efforts to support struggling launcher manufacturers and operators Boeing and Lockheed Martin have been jeopardised by a criminal probe into the 1998 evolved expendable launch vehicle (EELV) competition.

An interim ministerial meeting has been called for late May to decide on ESA proposals to restructure Europe's launcher industry, which was plunged into crisis by the December failure of the Ariane 5 ECA on its maiden flight.

ESA plans to provide €550 million in 2003 and 2004 for redesign of the uprated Vulcain 2 first-stage engine; a qualification flight early next year carrying a dummy payload; and a second qualification flight late in 2004 carrying Europe's Automated Transfer Vehicle cargo carrier for the International Space Station (ISS). Industry would provide €75 million.

In addition, €190 million a year would be guaranteed to Arianespace from 2005 to 2009 to cover the launch services company's overheads. EADS will become the single prime contractor for the Ariane 5, taking over launcher integration from Arianespace.

ESA will take over Ariane development from French space agency CNES and Arianespace will buy ready-to-fly launchers from EADS, which has agreed to reduce the cost for 30 Ariane 5 ECAs to be delivered between 2005 and 2009 by 30%.

Loss-making Arianespace will be recapitalised in 2004, and cash-strapped CNES is expected to reduce its 32% shareholding, raising the possibility that the company will be integrated into EADS. Its US rivals, also hit by the downturn in commercial launches, have been in talks with the DoD on forming a joint venture to reduce launch costs. But talks have been slowed by a federal investigation into Boeing's possession of Lockheed Martin documents during the EELV competition.

ESA ministers will also be presented with a French-backed proposal to build a second pad at the Kourou, French Guiana, Ariane launch site for the Russian Soyuz booster, at a cost of €314 million.

Source: Flight International