PARIS — The new president of rocket prime contractor ArianeGroup said that even if the company had all the technologies needed to reuse part of the Ariane 6 rocket, it would not adopt it because of the constraints inherent in the reusability business model.
Andre-Hubert Roussel, facing continued skepticism in Europe — even among French elected officials — about whether the new Ariane 6 can hope to compete against the SpaceX Falcon 9, said the SpaceX model relies on a large number of launches, year in and year out.
European governments, plus however the commercial launch market evolves, are nowhere near being able to provide demand for such a launch cadence.
Roussel said that already in 2014 the company, then named Astrium Space Transportation, was asking itself whether an expendable rocket was not about to become outdated. That was the year that European governments, and ArianeGroup, agreed to develop Ariane 6, whose first launch is scheduled for mid-2020.
“Here’s my answer,” Roussel said during a Jan. 21 press briefing here. “In 2014, the Ariane 6 launch cadence was foreseen to be 11 per year — five government launches and six commercial. Now the commercial market is in free fall and the [broadband] satellite constellations are not showing up. So now, we’re looking at a cadence of around nine per year” for Ariane 6.
“If Ariane 6 was reusable, even if only 10 times, that would mean we build one rocket per year,” Roussel said. “You cannot imagine the cost of a rocket produced at a rate of one per year, with the amortization of [R&D] and the cost of maintaining your knowledge base. The price would not be competitive.”
SpaceX founder Elon Musk has said the Block 5 version of the Falcon 9, which is flying now, can reuse its first stage 10 times with no refurbishment, and perhaps 100 times with slight refurbishment.
There is a large debate in the rocket industry over the minimum annual launch rate, sustained over many years, that would justify the investment in a reusable vehicle and the performance penalty — in extra fuel and landing legs — that reusability imposes.
European government officials have been as seduced as Americans by SpaceX’s return and reflight of the Falcon 9 first stage. They appear to have bought the argument of SpaceX — and more recently, Blue Origin — that it’s just as uneconomic to throw away a rocket after each launch as it would be to throw away a commercial jetliner after a single flight.
The collapse of the commercial launch market for larger satellites will make it difficult even for SpaceX to fill its manifest sufficiently to make reusability pay over time, despite SpaceX’s access to the large U.S. government market.
Struggling against a skeptical European public
But that message has not sunk in to many in Europe, even among elected officials — https://bit.ly/2RA9XrK and https://bit.ly/2T496fc — who view reusability as a part of the New Space movement, and expendable rockets as yesterday’s technology.
ArianeGroup and the 22-nation European Space Agency (ESA) have agreed to invest in a LOX/methane engine called Prometheus that could be used as part of a reusable vehicle. But Prometheus’s main promise is that it is designed to be 10 times less costly to build than the Vulcain engine that now powers the Ariane 5 first stage.
Assuming it gets fresh ESA financial support late this year, Prometheus could fly by around 2025. Roussel said that around that time, Europe could assess whether the increase in launch demand justifies a reusable rocket.
The SpaceX vs ArianeGroup contrast goes beyond each company’s domestic government market.
SpaceX announced recently that more than 500 people would be laid off as the company confronted its business challenges. ArianeGroup in November said it would be reducing its launch-vehicle work force by 2,300 people to remain competitive. The layoffs are scheduled to occur over four years.
“It’s obviously more easy to do it like SpaceX,,” Roussel said. “Our business culture is not like that and we’re not going to do it that way.”