Tuesday, November 7, 2023

Has the European Space Agency Seen the Reality of Space 2.0?

At a meeting Monday, 22 European countries reached an agreement to change the way they operate.  Rockets will not be developed by the ESA itself, but they will move in the direction of a commercial paradigm, much as NASA and the private sector space companies have revolutionized how it's being done in the US. 

The agreement means the new Ariane 6 rocket, which is running four years late and still hasn't flown, should be the last launch vehicle developed by ESA. Europe's old way of developing rockets just isn't working anymore. The current model, Aschbacher said, has been in place for decades, producing new generations of Ariane rockets since 1979.
Josef Aschbacher, a scientist who took over as director general of ESA in 2021, has argued that Europe is in an "acute launcher crisis" now that the continent lacks independent launch capability for most of its space missions.

Does he mean like how the ESA hired SpaceX to put a couple of their Galileo navigation satellites up since they don't have a working vehicle?  

Sorry, ESA, that was harsh.  The truth is more nuanced than that.  We've covered Europe's fledgling launch industry before, and they're progressing, ignoring the ESA.  For example, Norway opened their Andøya spaceport in the arctic this past week.  

The field of startup launch companies in Europe includes German firms like HyImpulse, Rocket Factory Augsburg, and Isar Aerospace; British companies such as Skyrora and Orbex; and Spain's PLD Space, which recently test-launched its first suborbital test vehicle. ArianeGroup has its own small launch startup called MaiaSpace in France, and the Italian company has plans to evolve its already-flying Vega launch vehicle. All these companies, and others across Europe, would be eligible for ESA's new launch challenge.

Andøya Spaceport's Launch Pad A, built to specifications from Germany's Isar Aerospace, and dedicated to their use. The launch complex includes the launch pad, payload integration facilities and a mission control center. Credit: Andøya Spaceport

Isar Aerospace, for example, is working on their two-stage Spectrum launch vehicle, designed to deliver up to 700 kilograms to sun-synchronous orbit (SSO) and up to one metric ton (1,000 kg) to low Earth orbit. It seems reasonable to project a first launch of the Spectrum in early 2025.

There are other European spaceports in the works and one other that has officially opened - Sweden's Esrange Spaceport - but has not hosted any missions. 

A graphic of the various rockets in process by EU companies, from the website European Spaceflight in July of '22

While I see this as positive step, we have to recognize that this doesn't get them out of the hole of having no launch capability.  It will be some time, more likely measured in years than months before the small companies create a way to space; realistically they either get the Ariane 6 flying or they have nothing.

The Ariane 6 rocket is more expensive than officials thought when they greenlit the program in 2014. The Ariane 6 will come closer than the recently retired Ariane 5 launcher to matching SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket on cost, but Europe runs the risk of falling even further behind as SpaceX brings its next-generation Starship rocket online.

Nevertheless, after nearly a decade of work, ESA, the European Union, and commercial customers—primarily Amazon—need the Ariane 6 soon to launch dozens of missions already on contract. It's a widely held view among many European officials that it is imperative to have a sovereign launch capability.

One of the things I read about the ESA's reaction to reusability that got etched into my brain was that they laughed at it and openly said their reason to be there was make-work programs.  

Truthfully, if Europe ever did develop a reusable rocket, one that could fly all the missions in a year, this would be unhelpful politically. What would the engine and booster factories sprinkled across Europe do if they built one rocket and then had 11 months off? The member states value the jobs too much. This is one difference between rocket-by-government and rocket-by-billionaire programs. [Bold added - SiG]

Rocket-by-billionaire?  Is that Musk Derangement Syndrome?  Bezos Derangement Synderome?  Or just plain "projection?"

The old article is an interesting read, if nothing else for the arrogance displayed by the ESA folks like that last quote. It seems they've learned a lesson here.  Reusability changes everything. 


  1. The biggest thing that turns me off about Europe (in general) is their inbred arrogance and sense of entitlement (both classes -- the peons feel entitled to their stipends, and the overlords feel entitled to their power). It is good to see reality smack them hard, once in awhile.

  2. Build a rocket that can fly all the existing missions and MORE missions will come out of the woodwork. Talk about a failure of imagination.

  3. The Euros need to get on the bandwagon, and right quickly, or their businesses will go to other (mostly American) companies that don't have the NIMBY syndrome. It's very telling that the first sentence in the article (that you bolded) talks about politics. WE all need to get politics out of the space program and make it "for-pay" instead.