On July 5, 2023, the last Ariane 5 rocket took flight, ending a 20-year career of reliable launches with 112 successful missions completed. However, Europe is now ready to take a big step in the future with the new Ariane 6 launcher… well, maybe not.
With important delays in the development of the new heavy-lift launch vehicle, Europe falls into a period of uncertainty regarding its capability for autonomous access to space. Although, Ariane 6 issues are not the only ones responsible for this situation.
In less than a year Europe found itself without small, medium and heavy-launch vehicles; also the lack of political vision and investments in private companies isn’t helping. Europe is undoubtedly one of the leaders in the space sector, with numerous high-level scientific missions like JUICE (JUpiter ICy moons Explorer), and maintaining this position is crucial.
Europe without space vehicles
Due to the outbreak of the war in Ukraine, access to the Russian Soyuz rocket, which served as the European Space Agency’s medium-lift launch vehicle, is no longer available.
The situation with ESA’s new smaller rocket Vega C isn’t better. Avio’s light launcher, an improved version of the Vega, failed in its second launch (VV22) last December. An internal investigation, released by the Independent Enquiry Commission in March, established that the failure of the second stage was caused by the rupture of a component of the Zefiro-40 engine.
This incident has put Vega C launches on standby until at least the end of this year. Unfortunately, a new malfunction occurred during a static-fire test on June 28, definitely pushing back the return to flight to 2024. ESA will now have to rely on its last two remaining Vega, one is scheduled to launch in September.
Supposed to launch in 2020, Ariane 6 suffered important delays and is now scheduled not to take flight before 2024. The new rocket will have increased payload capacity, much larger flexibility, and reduced cost compared to its predecessor. However, Ariane 6 development dates back to 2014 and will have to fly for 10 years as a reusable successor would only arrive in the 2030s according to Arianespace’s plans. This timeline poses a risk of Ariane 6 becoming in a short time an outdated vehicle, potentially making it challenging to compete on the international stage.
A change is needed
Despite the 17% ESA budget increase confirmed during the last Ministerial Council, a report released in March by the High-Level Advisory Group quickly broke the enthusiasm. The independent advisory council highlighted the backwardness of European plans concerning human spaceflight and independent access to space.
The experts, in particular, raised concerns about the future position of Europe in this strategic sector. The United States and China are setting up a new space race and Europe risks being left out, resulting in geopolitical implications and the loss of significant industrial capabilities.
Obviously, European economies wouldn’t be able to handle such significant expenses, affecting nationals’ welfare; the private sector is crucial in this process. The Advisory Group strongly suggested the adoption of a new commercially-orientated procurement policy with substantial funds toward several private companies and startups for the development of space infrastructures.
Indeed, as demonstrated by the USA and China, this model is successful in achieving rapid and sustainable development in the space sector. For 9 years NASA relied on the Russian Soyuz program to transport its astronauts to the International Space Station. Thanks to the Commercial Crew Program (CCP), since 2020 SpaceX’s Crew Dragon provides crew transportation services to the ISS and hopefully in the future Boeing’s Starliner as well, with reduced costs for public resources.
China has rapidly witnessed the emergence of numerous state-supported aerospace companies aiming to grab significant portions of the sector and has ambitious plans for human space exploration as well.
The future of the European space sector
The path will be hard but not impossible, ESA’s Boost! program is a good example of sustainable and profitable partnership with startups and small companies for the development of future commercial transportation services to space, in space, and returning from space.
An important number of new European private companies are now competing to fly light launch vehicles within the next year, among them Rocket Factory Augsburg, Isar Aerospace, Skyrora, and PLD Space have already signed important contracts.
RFA seems ahead in this race and will probably claim a substantial part of the European light launch services. Their RFA One is a three-stage rocket capable of delivering up to 1,300 kg to SSO and will be launched from saxaVord Spaceport in Shetland.
“Space is undergoing a revolutionary change, comparable to the internet economy 20 years ago. […] Europe cannot afford to miss a new potential golden age with high multiplier effects across the economy. […] Only a truly transformative approach, fostering a vibrant innovation ecosystem through private sector co-investment, new innovative financing structures, and challenge-based procurement can lead to success.”– Report of ESA’s High-Level Advisory Group