Pierre Delsaux, deputy director-general of the European Commission, said many EU member states have no vested interests in Europe’s rocket programs and need to be persuaded that a guaranteed purchase of Ariane-6 or Vega-C rockets will not result in paying more than prevailing market rates. Source: ESA video

LE BOURGET, France — European governments on June 22 conducted a rare genuine public debate over whether Europe views autonomous access to space as a strategic priority and, if so, how far it will go to support it.

As became clear, Europe is still not ready to accept all the consequences of labeling space launch as “strategic,” which usually means that financial considerations take a back seat. Many do not want to give Europe’s launcher sector, led by Ariane Group, a blank check.

It is not often that conflicting views on the subject are publicly aired, especially in France, which is the only nation in Europe to have identified launch-service independence as worth huge amounts of public treasure.

The new French research minister, Frederique Vidal, has stated the government’s endorsement of a Buy European Launchers Act, now being debated by the 28-nation European Union’s executive commission.

More recently, Italy has come around to the idea in defense of the Italian-led Vega small-satellite launcher, which European governments have agreed to upgrade.

By 2020, the upgraded Vega-C and the new Ariane 6 heavy-lift rocket are both scheduled to be in operation.

In exchange for doing away with some of the government launcher-support payments now behind Ariane 5 and the first-version Vega, Europe’s rocket industry is asking European governments to guarantee to provide five satellites per year for the Ariane 6, and two per year for the Vega-C.

How to provide this guarantee without trampling on European procurement rules, and while providing assurances that launcher pricing would be competitive, is the core of the current debate.

Given the status of the Ariane 6 and Vega-C programs, there is pressure to settle the matter by the spring of 2018.

Ariane Group guarantees Ariane 62 launch for 70 million euros

Ariane Group and its launch-service subsidiary, Arianespace, have said they will guarantee a launch of an Ariane 62 rocket, the smaller of the two Ariane 6 versions, for a price of 70 million euros in 2014 economic conditions, or about $78 million at today’s exchange rate.

But this price is valid only if European governments — individual nations, the European Commission, the European Space Agency and Europe’s meteorological satellite organization, Eumetsat — agree to give clear preference to Ariane 6 and Vega-C to reach the minimum guaranteed level.

Cubesats on India’s PSLV, and a GEO telecom satellite on SpaceX

The debate, held here at the Paris Air Show, came one day before four European governments — Finland, Latvia, Lithuania and Slovakia — launched small satellites aboard India’s PSLV rocket, and two days before the launch aboard a SpaceX rocket of BulgariaSat-1, from Bulgaria.

And it was only a few months ago that the Italian Space Agency flirted with a SpaceX launch of a government Cosmo-Skymed radar Earth observation satellite before agreeing to use a Europeanized Russian Soyuz rocket.

The Soyuz will be deemed eligible for European government missions until around 2023, when the Ariane 62 will replace it. How long the Soyuz will continue to operate from Europe’s spaceport for commercial missions is unclear.

The debate did not pitch dramatically opposing views. But some, including Arianespace and the French and Italian space agencies, came down clearly in favor of an immediate Buy European Launchers Act. Others, including the European Space Agency, stressed that a launcher guarantee must include competitiveness benchmarks and reviews.

Still others, including the German government, the European Commission and Eumetsat, pointed out the difficulties of the policy even as they said they were ultimately in favor of it.

Here are excerpts:

Jan Woerner, director-general, ESA:

European autonomy is an institutional goal, signed by the ministers at ESA and in the joint statement by the European Union and ESA. We have this common institutional goal. But if we have this goal, we have to have a commitment to it. This is the discussion we have today.

Daniel Neuenschwander, director of space transportation, ESA:

ESA proposes to agree on how to procure launches for institutional missions as part of the European Institutional Exploitation (EIE) instrument.

Daniel Neuenschwander, ESA’s director of space transportation. Credit: ESA video

The main points of the EIE:

We have to assure technical compatibility, so that each party adhering to the EIE accepts that any new satellite it develops will be compatible with Ariane 6 and Vega-C.

Second, we agree to give preference to these launchers. It means clearly we give priority first to ESA-developed launchers. We also have Soyuz operating from CSG. This will disappear for institutional missions [once Ariane 6 is fully operational].

We will have a single process for procurement. We offer spare capacity for auxiliary payloads for institutional actors. We propose to offer space for cubesats for European institutional actors, to use 100 percent of the volume under the fairing. In the event of any negotiation deadlocks between the customer and the launch service provider for complementary services, ESA will go for an independent cost and technical assessment.

We have an agreement between the [ESA] director of telecommunication and myself on how we will deal with PPP [public-private partnership] missions to be counted as part of the effort on the European institutional side.

Pierre Delsaux, deputy director-general, European Commission:

Why do we want autonomy in space? Because space is a key factor for growth in the future.

In our space strategy we say it’s important to try to globalize the demand in Europe, for the European Commission and other players in Europe. What is proposed by ESA, which is not yet agreed, is certainly a step in the right direction.

Of course, the devil lies in the details. At the end of the day I am sure we can find the devil and find a solution that will be acceptable by everybody.

Joel Barre, deputy director-general, French space agency, CNES:

The “Frenchies” are quite satisfied by what has been stated by ESA and the commission. Now we need to transform this into acts. To have an affordable launch vehicle we need a market, both commercial and institutional. To have an institutional market for Ariane 6 and Vega-C, we need an agreement between all the institutional users.

Joel Barre of CNES: We don’t need to spend months debating procurement law. We vote a Buy European Launchers Act and that becomes law. Credit: CNES

All other launchers in the world are supported by their countries. We need to move forward on the EIE. We hope this agreement will be able to be concluded by the end of the year or early next year.

Wolfgang Scheremet, director-general, industrial policy, German Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy:

For good reasons, in Europe we have relatively strict procurement laws and state aid laws. However, we have decided in Europe we want to have an independent access to space. If we say A, we have to say B as well.

Wolfgang Scheremet of Germany’s Economics Ministry: Procurement rules are strict for good reasons. Credit: ESA video

We cannot say, “I want to wash without getting wet.” If we want independent access to space, we have to decide how we finance this. We have to find a good compromise. The public side finances the development of Ariane 6, and we have forced industry to take responsibility to share the development costs. We can have competitive cost only when the risk shared by the private side.

Without giving a clear answer to your question today, [I agree] we need a specific number of launchers per year to reduce the fixed cost of each launch.

We have these strict procurement laws and state aid laws. We have to make a clear statement on a Buy European Launchers Act. We need a commitment from the European Commission.

We have a private burden-sharing on development cost in Ariane 6. It’s still missing with respect to Vega. We need more burden-sharing with respect to Vega. Then we might extend these three principles to Vega.

Roberto Battiston, president, Italian Space Agency:

We support the idea that to make a solid base, we need a Buy European Launchers Act to stabilize the system. The critical mass of the institutional market is needed to allow the private sector to take over on launcher capability.

Alain Ratier, director-general, Eumetsat:

We are an intergovernmental organization of 30 member states that offers operational meteorological satellites from geostationary and low Earth orbit. Service continuity is a must, in the first place for the protection of life and property.

Among these 30 member states, some have no space industry. And let me say that money is sometimes more expensive in Eumetsat than elsewhere in Europe.

Second, reliability is crucial, all the more so because we do not insure our satellites, which would not make much sense anyway.

We believe independence is a must for Europe. We have some experience:   We were grounded for five months in Baikonur because of a dispute between [the Russian and Kazakh heads of state, which delayed launch on a Europe-managed Soyuz rocket].

Independence has a cost and we recognize that this cost may be worthwhile.

Eumetsat: No commitment to Ariane 6 until it’s flight-proven

Now on commitment: For the reasons I have explained, we can only commit to reality. You cannot expect Eumetsat to commit to buy launchers that are not qualified, meaning flight-proven.

I can give you an example. We were offered a very good price for the first Ariane 5 ECA. We refused. And we were right. We were offered half the price and we did not want it because we wanted a qualified launcher. [Ariane 5’s inaugural flight, carrying a European science mission, failed.]

Alain Ratier of Eumetsat: ‘We were offered half price for the inaugural Ariane 5 flight. We refused. We were right.’ Credit: Eumetsat

We support the European effort because we believe in autonomy. But the launcher has to be attractive. You cannot expect a commitment from Eumetsat before Ariane 6 is qualified and flight-proven. If we go for Ariane 6 it will be later, after it is proven.

It is the position of our council that we want to make sure the launcher is competitive.

Stephane Israel, CEO, Arianespace:

You, the European institutions, are already a big customer for us. The institutional market is absolutely key. Last year, of 86 launches worldwide, 65 were institutional.

Stephane Israel of Arianespace: ‘Don’t compare us to what SpaceX offers commercial customers. Compare us to what the US government pays for SpaceX and ULA launches.’ Credit: ESA

Compare us to the US [government] market, which is closed to non-US launchers. It is huge, $5 billion per year on launchers. In Europe, it is 10% of that in a good year.

Yes, there is an internal competition in the US. But what we will offer with Ariane 62 is cheaper than this internal competition.

Figures disclosed by the US Air Force for one GPS satellite show it is far more expensive than what we are going to offer with Ariane 62.

We need a real contractual commitment from our customers. It cannot only be promises. We know there is a diversity of people in Europe and that it will not be easy.

Daniel Neuenschwander, director of space transportation, ESA:

On prices, we have to define a method, this is part of the whole deal, but we cannot say it will last for a century. we need regular competitiveness checks.

Pierre Delsaux, deputy director-general, European Commission:

I used to be in charge of procurement rules in the EC and you can never completely forget your past.

We believe in having some kind of preference for European launchers. But of course, if we also want to comply with procurement rules and principles, the competitiveness of the offer is important. That will be important. It’s difficult to justify that we buy something that is twice as expensive as another product.

Stephane Israel, CEO, Arianespace:

What is the element of reference: Institutional launches or the commercial market? This question is absolutely key. We need to compare apples to apples.

You’re right there is internal competition in the US, but it is closed to non US players. And if you take the average price even with the newcomers you are far above what we have committed. We have made a clear commitment. The price of an Ariane 62 is 70 million euros in 2014 economic conditions, provided that we have five missions per year.

And we hope to have two Vega C per year. We are absolutely competitive to other solutions with this price.

Wolfgang Scheremet, director-general, industrial policy, German Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy:

Competition is good. But he market for launches is not really a market, it is institution-dominated and we have to somehow simulate market forces. Nevertheless, we cannot neglect all the good procurement rules and state aid rules.

We have financed a good part of the development of Ariane 6 with taxpayers’ money. We have to consider that the taxpayer does not want to pay twice. But if the taxpayer wants independent access to space he has to pay a certain amount.

Joel Barre, deputy director-general, French space agency, CNES:

Why are we discussing European procurement rules if we agree we should have a Buy European Launcher Act? We have to decide it: Period. When the US decided its Buy American Act they did not ask Europe its opinion. When the US Air Force buys a launcher from SpaceX for $90 million or $100 million, they do not ask our opinion.

Pierre Delsaux, deputy director-general, European Commission:

We have to realize we have 28 member states. Not all of them are represented here. You have countries that are not so interested in space or Ariane 6. They can accept the benefit of space and of independent access to space.

But it is difficult to say to those countries: We will be using your money without any limit an without taking competition into account. That is why this competitiveness check is important. It is not a question of procurement rules, it is a question of using taxpayers money. The investment by taxpayers to prepare Ariane 6 and Vega-C is important to take into account.

Roberto Battiston, president, Italian Space Agency:

Look at the incredible cost of ULA rockets versus SpaceX versus us. The institutions in the US are so far away from the reasonable discussions we are having here. The fact that European investors have invested does not automatically allow them to have a very cheap launch price. If we don’t survive, what they have paid for will disappear.

Roberto Battiston of the Italian Space Agency: ‘The fact that taxpayers paid for launcher development doesn’t guarantee them low prices.’ Credit: ESA video

Daniel Neuenschwander, director of space transportation, ESA:

At ESA level we have an exploitation readiness key point, which is a technical review, between mid-November and mid-December. Based on the outcome of this review we will prepare the associated decisions with all the parties concerned, first of all the participating states in the programs, toward a decision expected in the spring of 2018. This is the timeline we would like to conclude the agreements.

Pierre Delsaux, deputy director-general, European Commission:

We will produce a midterm report on Copernicus and Galileo in September and then we will look at the future. That will trigger a broad discussion about space. The next [EU] presidency, Estonia, would like to finalize the debate by the end of December.