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RTD info logoMagazine on European Research N° 38 - July 2003   
 Europe's troubled seas
 Gutsy bacteria 
 The triumphs of a gene hunter
 Utopia on wheels

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Title  Ariane saved at the last moment

Recently, the survival of Ariane has been at the heart of the debate on European space policy. This is something of a paradox in the light of the satellite launcher's many successes over the years and its continued leadership on the commercial launching market. We look at the reasons for the crisis and the final happy outcome. 

Audacity and prowess were the first requirements. When, in the 1970s, Europe decided to 'go it alone' on the space scene, it was up against a US-Russian supremacy which had dominated space from the outset. At this time the 'space market' was just beginning to open up. While the two superpowers engaged in their military and industrial rivalry, civil and commercial opportunities were becoming evident. Europe's decision to try and win this niche market was a wise one. The Russians were barred from this as a result of their politico-ideological isolation, while the Americans had decided to concentrate on the concept of multi-trip shuttles, leaving rockets for others.

Good decision
It was the right initial choice. With exemplary resolve, the Europeans designed, tested and launched the first successful generations of the Ariane rocket. Fate also intervened when the United States was handicapped by the disaster of the Challenger shuttle in 1986.  

The way was now open and the Ariane gamble paid off. This was a time when the launching of telecommunications, meteorological and Earth observation satellites was at its height. Throughout the 1990s, Ariane was the leader on the commercial market, winning more than 50% of launching orders worldwide. The money was coming in and the order book for the Ariane 4 generation was full. The European space industry was booming and Europe had the means to finance its vast spectrum of space activities, especially in the scientific field. 

Dramatic blow
But as the new century dawned, the success story threatened to unravel. Space swallows up investments at a sometimes alarming rate. Arianespace invested huge sums in developing the new Ariane 5 generation, driven by the need to achieve increasingly large payloads. Yet it had little alternative on a market where not only the United States but also Russia, Japan, China, India and Brazil were now competing very aggressively. 

The other problem was that the demand for satellite launchings was falling. Telecommunications, which had always been an important sector for the order books, was now in trouble. Developments in this key sector were impeded in particular by the failure – albeit no doubt temporary – of third-generation telephony systems (such as UMTS which permits Internet access from a mobile telephone). 

Between 1996 and 2002, the first family of the Ariane 5 generation – with a useful payload of between six and seven tonnes – made just 12 successful launches (out of 13 attempts). But one of the most strategic of these, the launch of the European Artemis geostationary telecommunications satellite (see page 4) failed to achieve its exact orbit. Then, in December 2002, came the dramatic blow of the in-flight explosion of the 157 rocket, which was to have marked the debut of the new Ariane 5 ECA '10 tonnes' version designed to launch a double payload of heavy satellites. This failed effort caused serious questions to be asked about the future of this new generation of heavy payload launchers on which Arianespace had staked so much. It meant going back to the drawing board to review the design and at least two test flights before a further commercial launch could be undertaken – and that meant 2004 at the earliest.  

Ariane in the red
In April 2003, this failure was offset by the success of flight 160, using a 'generic' Ariane 5 of the initial design.   Europe was not without satellite launchers – but was nevertheless in dire financial straits. The costs involved in reviewing the ECA version came at the worst possible moment. The market was shrinking, with just six satellite launches planned for 2003 compared with 12 launches from the Kourou base in French Giuiana in 2002. Arianespace – and behind it all the industrial subcontractors and thousands of jobs – had been losing several hundred million euro a month since 2000. 

During the first five months of this year the situation looked grim. The threatened survival of Ariane was headline news. But given the economic and strategic importance of access to space, could Europe afford to abandon the fruits of three decades of efforts during which it had so spectacularly achieved its space autonomy? Pulling out would mean marginalising a whole section of its industry in a key field in the age of globalisation. 

New impetus
New political impetus was needed. On 27 May, at the Council of Ministers of the ESA member states, the decision was taken to further finance the Ariane 5 programme –in particular, the cost of redesigning the large payload model. A specific programme for the years 2005-2009 was also adopted to develop a genuine European policy for the 'institutional utilisation' of Ariane 5. 

This radical review of European space policy is very timely. The long success story of Ariane was based entirely on a drive to win the commercial space market. The initial calculation was the right one. Over the past 20 years, civil – and especially private – demand to launch television relay, telecommunications, meteorological and Earth observation satellites has experienced extremely strong growth. Today, it has reached a plateau and the competitive environment which enabled Ariane to win more than 50% of the market worldwide has changed a great deal. Obliged to reduce its prices compared with the competition – such as Boeing's new Delta IV launcher which has some lucrative contracts with the Pentagon to supplement its commercial payloads – Arianespace is at a great disadvantage and has been forced to operate at a loss. 

The price of autonomy
To extricate itself from these financial straits, not only is it necessary to restructure the way the company operates and its relations with its partners and industrial suppliers, but a genuine European space strategy is also required which goes beyond simply occupying a commercial niche market. Projects such as Galileo and GMES show to what extent it is time to strengthen an 'institutional' demand for space infrastructures and services. These are proving increasingly necessary in meeting the requirements of implementing European policy in sectors such as transport, the environment and security. Without these public orders, Ariane – and with it the next generation of European launchers which are already on the drawing board – will be unable to survive. That is the cost of maintaining Europe's autonomy in space.

Printable version

Features 1 2 3 4 5 6
  Europe faces its future in space 
  Everyday life in orbit
  Science without gravity
  A springboard to the Universe
  Ariane saved at the last moment
  Galileo and GMES: Two vehicles of European ambitions

  More rockets for Europe

Although Ariane continues to be the mainstay of European launching capacity, the next few years will see considerable expansion and diversification.   First there is the agreement currently being discussed with Russia to create, at the European ...

  • ESA - Launchers
  • Arianespace

    Features 1 2 3 4 5 6
      More rockets for Europe

    Soyuz - the European spaceport in Kourou will soon be the departure base for Russian rockets participating in Europe's global space strategy.  ©ESA
    Soyuz - the European spaceport in Kourou will soon be the departure base for Russian rockets participating in Europe's global space strategy.

    Although Ariane continues to be the mainstay of European launching capacity, the next few years will see considerable expansion and diversification.   First there is the agreement currently being discussed with Russia to create, at the European spaceport of Kourou, a specific launching pad for commercial launches of the very reliable Soyuz rockets. This increase in the fleet would be a major asset, permitting more efficient management of a centre which plays a major role in Europe's global strategy. 

    Secondly, the new generation of Vega 'light' rockets should be operational in 2006. The decision to develop them was taken in 1998 in response to a clearly identified market need which had been largely ignored due to a global demand for heavy satellites. Vega will launch – at a very competitive cost – payloads of between 300 and 1 500 kg into very low orbit. These will be small satellites primarily, often for observations of a specific scientific or environmental nature.