France, Germany and Italy call for new launcher policy

Posted Nov 22, 2022, 6:27 PM

At the opening of the space conference which brings together the 22 Member States of the European Space Agency (ESA) in Paris this Tuesday, November 22, the French Minister for the Economy Bruno Le Maire called united europe in the face of Chinese and American space ambitions. While the States are meeting to decide on their financial contribution to the ESA budget over the next three years and thus set the Union’s space ambition in the face of NASA and the Chinese agency (China National Space Administration), the Minister called on Europe not to deny its differences, but to know how to overcome them and draw inspiration from them to build compromises.

He announced the signing of a last-minute compromise between France, Germany and Italy on European launchers, in order to prevent the ministerial conference from being held hostage by the quarrels between the three major space nations of the ESA. Together, they represent more than half of ESA’s budget. Three years ago during the previous ministerial conference, a big check was signed to ensure the transition between Ariane 5 and Ariane 6, hoping that it was the last big bill before the launch of the new launcher.

Initially scheduled for 2020, the launch of Ariane 6 has been postponed to the end of 2023. Three years ago, no one had anticipated the departure of the Soyuz rocket of the Kourou spaceport, which is hampering the launch of various European programs and making Ariane 6 delays even more painful.

Different interests, a model to redefine

Unanimity on the policy of launchers is thus undermined. While France pleads for unfailing support for the Ariane 6 program, the guarantor of Europe’s sovereign access to space, Italy wants to develop and market alone, without Arianespace, its Vega light launcher to gain more market share. Germany, for its part, dreams of a private market for competitive launchers and wishes to give a chance to small private launchers, developing on its territory and elsewhere. The agreement signed on Tuesday by ministers Bruno Le Maire, Robert Habeck and Adolfo Urso opens a year-long negotiating agenda to reform ESA’s policy for European launchers. “The three players recognize that each has different interests, that the European aid model for launchers must evolve and set a method of negotiations”, sums up Daniel Neuenschwander, director at ESA.

Thanks to this agreement, the three players will agree to pay most of the new aid intended for launchers, i.e. an envelope of 1.1 billion euros for Ariane 6 and Vega C for the next three years, in order to guarantee their ramp-up and short-term improvements. Add to this funding requests of 800 million for the preparation of new generations of rockets and 600 million for the modernization of the Kourou spaceport! Then, the States want a change in the rules of the game.

Subsidies for Ariane 6 called into question

They reaffirm the need to bring into play the European preference for so-called institutional launches, ie those carried out for the benefit of national and European space agencies. But in accordance with Germany’s wishes, this preference will also apply in the future to private mini-launchers developed in particular in Germany, provided they are competitive and 100% European. ESA will also have to review the financing conditions for Ariane 6 and Vega. “The public funding necessary to balance the institutional and commercial operation of Ariane 6 and Vega-C will be reviewed in order to take into account the evolution of market prices, institutional prices, economic conditions and the evolution of the economy,” say the ministers.

In particular, this involves taking into account inflation and the increase in activity planned for Ariane 6. In 2021, it was decided in the summer of 2021 to grant a annual operating grant d e €140 million to Ariane 6 for 7 launches per year, including 4 institutional launches. With an order book of 29 shots, activity may be revised upwards for Ariane 6. But inflation is soaring. To gain in competitiveness, Paris obtained that a reflection be opened on the principle of geographical return, which obliges to distribute the work according to the financing granted by each State, which pushes the production costs upwards. Paris, Berlin and Rome are counting on decisions at the end of 2023. With a little luck, Ariane 6 will have made its maiden flight.

France, Germany and Italy call for new launcher policy