After Four Years of Being Crushed by SpaceX, Europe Forms a Working Group

In 2014, Arianespace had 60% of commercial launch but they were passed by SpaceX in launch market share in 2017. Paris and Rome have created a “working group on the future of European launchers” which will deliver conclusions in September.

SpaceX was third place in number of launches in 2014 and 2015. SpaceX passed Russia in 2016. SpaceX passed Ariane in 2017.

The Ariane response was to make the Ariane 6 rocket. The Ariane 6 would be somewhat competitive with a SpaceX Falcon 9 if it had some subsidies and Falcon 9 had no reusability.

Selection of the Ariane 6 design concept was made by ESA in December 2014. The detailed design phase was in 2016. Arianespace placed the first production order in May 2019. The first test flight was initially scheduled for 2020, but following several delays is now expected in the second quarter of 2022.

Two variants of Ariane 6 are being developed:

Ariane 62, with two P120 solid boosters, will weigh around 530 t (520 long tons; 580 short tons) at liftoff and is intended mainly for government and scientific missions. It can launch up to 5,000 kg (11,000 lb) into GTO and 10,350 kg (22,820 lb) into LEO.

Ariane 64, with four P120 boosters, has a liftoff weight of around 860 t (850 long tons; 950 short tons) and is intended for commercial dual-satellite launches of up to 11,500 kg (25,400 lb) into Geosynchronous transfer orbit (GTO) and 21,500 kg (47,400 lb) into LEO. Like Ariane 5, it will be able to launch two geosynchronous satellites together.

Project cost €3.6 billion
Cost per launch €75 million (Ariane 62) and €115 million (Ariane 64).

A SpaceX Falcon 9 launch starts at $50 million and SpaceX offers ridesharing launches starting at $1 million.

Falcon 9 Payload to LEO 22,800 kg / 50,265 lb
Falcon 9 Payload to GTO 8,300 kg / 18,300 lb.

SpaceX already has flown the Falcon Heavy successfully on several occasions.

Any new European Space launch system will have to compete with mass-produced SpaceX Super Heavy Starships. These systems could launch 100 tons to orbit with launch costs below $30 million.

The double satellite launch to GSO has kept Ariane in the game with a per satellite launch cost of €57 million.

If the Working Group is honest, they will report that European Space launch has not been able to compete in an unsubsidized competition for the last four years. Europe space launch and others will need to attempt to copy the fully reusable mass-produced SpaceX Super Heavy Starships. Otherwise, they are competing with the equivalent of single-use blimps versus reusable 747s.

I do not believe the Working Group will present an honest and truly realistic report.

Europe spent a couple of decades supporting the Airbus catch-up with Boeing. However, Elon Musk-led SpaceX is a far faster-improving company than Boeing.

SOURCES- ESA, Ariane, Wikipedia, SpaceX
Written By Brian Wang,

64 thoughts on “After Four Years of Being Crushed by SpaceX, Europe Forms a Working Group”

  1. A major insight of O'Neill is that variable rocket launch cost, etc, makes no difference in the plan. Bezos understands O'Neill. Do you?

  2. “If the Working Group is honest, they will report that European Space launch has not been able to compete in an unsubsidized competition for the last four years. Europe space launch and others will need to attempt to copy the fully reusable mass-produced SpaceX Super Heavy Starships. Otherwise, they are competing with the equivalent of single-use blimps versus reusable 747s.“

    Best comment!

  3. Makes sense. The USA, Russia, Europe, Japan, and China all have a vested interest in getting into space. India is joining too, but its ambitions are lower.

    The problem is that before Europe was mostly competing with NASA. But SpaceX isn't NASA. We can see the great difference by looking at the SLS development as compared to the Falcon/Starship development.

    You would think Blue Origin would be a worthy competitor, since it's based in the USA, the owner is a super billionaire, etc. There's a lot in common, at least on paper. But Elon Musk has invented a new development cycle called hyperscaling that has caused Tesla and SpaceX to devour its competition.

    Until other companies embrace failure as a temporary necessity to reach success and cheer like the SpaceX guys do when a rocket explodes, they will never grasp how hyperscaling works.

  4. They will also form a blue ribbon committee to see if iPhones and Bitcoin are commercially viable. We expect a consensus by 2034 at the latest.

  5. I kind of like the proposal to put a scoop system in orbit, in the upper reaches of the atmosphere: Part of the intake would be accelerated further to cancel drag, the rest would be compressed and liquefied, to supply air to orbital habs, or just for use as reaction mass, only cheaper than launching it as rocket payload.

  6. You've got a point there, matching speed with a cable hanging from Phobos wouldn't be very demanding.

  7. For Mars: Don't use surface to synchronous orbit. Lower a cable from Phobos to just above where air drag gets significant. The lower end will be only moving a few hundred m/s relative to the martian surface. So a rocket capable of going from surface to tether tip will be easy.

  8. Launch cannon focused on fuel depot supply might be practical? Probably can launch other supplies as well – food, breathing air, etc. Not a lot of material per launch, but you could launch pretty frequently, and you could probably figure out a way to get the final stages back for reuse.

  9. Or accept it, and focus their efforts on something that takes advantage of SpaceX launch and brings them some big new capability. Lunar mining would be a decent focus, and could attract US to partner with them, insuring them launch access for other stuff.

  10. Yes, to go on into orbit. There is a range, from normal jet "air breathing engines" intake max speed, to Skylon air intake max speed where the normal jets would have to be higher to avoid overheated intake air, thus needing the carried spray. Skylon has only the rocket engine, "gets you away from needing two sets of engines". IF Skylon could go orbital v in the atmos, by using wings or body to stay down, it could perhaps need to carry *no* O. But that would be the sod scramjet performance. I suggest using the best combo.

  11. One of the problems is that the EU is not geared for innovative capitalism. Crony, slow moving, big tech, sure, but nimble, fast pace development? No chance.

    And this is why Europe will try to "solve" this problem by poring money into subsidies, or possibly, by starting some large research programs. But deregulating and lowering taxes is of course out of the question. Instead, they will make another version of RoHS with even more demands on documentation and tests in a never ending ratchet towards complete standstill.

  12. To be fair, if ESA/arianespace are stuck in institutional mode, the launch rate doesn't justify the cost of full reusability investment. Very similar to what the CEO of ULA, Tory Bruno), was saying where if you aren't averaging at least 10 reuses per vehicle across the whole fleet, it isn't worth it. With institutional launch rates so low, that gets pretty hard. They end on the same path as ULA and Vulkan.

  13. Wow, a working group to think over commercial viability? Is this like a japanese committee mulling over things so long, it turns into hard cider?

  14. Yes and the estimates are $10-20 billion for development. By the time it is done SpaceX will be on Mars.

  15. Skylon needs probably another decade of work even if well funded. The SABRE engines are amazing but not finished yet, and there is no airframe work at all.

  16. You forgot the nuclear powered subs and air craft carriers. But the point is valid – Europe needs independent access to space, and particularly its own GPS.

  17. China claims full orbital v in atmos, as did Australia, "no limits". Wings could hold down in atmos until air no longer needed. Wiki: Also, the shcramjet (aka sod) is believed to have a better overall propulsive performance than the scramjet at higher Mach numbers, especially above Mach 12.

  18. Bezos is, for decades. It is the heart of O'Neill plans, called "bootstrapping" before ISRU was coined. Major effort underway.

  19. Your ramjet only gets you to the top of the atmosphere, and 1/3 to 1/2 orbital velocity at best. From there you either need a rocket or something like the rotorvator.

  20. Who will travel across the picturesque cities of Europe, eat canapés, drink good wine & coffee and say "Problem? What problem? On the contrary, this wine is excellent good sir! Where shall we meet next month? I know a lovely little place in Milan…"

  21. It was the laser riding vehicle itself that I didn't think could scale well. I guess Brett meant the same thing.

    But I agree that the way to actually get ahead of SpaceX is either

    1. Use a power source with a far better power/weight ratio (nuclear/antimatter/space-unicorns) or
    2. Use a power source that isn't part of the vehicle that you are accelerating (beamed power, launch cannon, rotorvator etc.)
  22. Yep. All in favor of keeping a local Galleon and Caravel building capability, to avoid being locked out of the seven seas by those new fangled diesel motor boats and flying airplanes.

  23. If BFR/Starship works then there won't be any leapfrogging SpaceX getting to LEO with chemical rocket engines.

    Every other option is a marginal improvement, something that SpaceX will best by the time they have Starship dialed it.

    Even Skylon has issues- specifically that it puts about 1/10th as much payload in to LEO per launch.

  24. The lasers are scaling better and better. With an ISP of 900 (H2) or running in high thrust O2 afterburner mode (LANTR style) it could be a compelling way to create cheap launch vehicles while keeping the launch infrastructure on the ground where it is nice and safe.

  25. There has been some interesting research in laser powered rockets, even air breathing ones. But I don't think they looked like they'd scale well.

  26. I see no problem here, just some economic cheer leading.

    The Europeans will always maintain independent access to space, the US should do the same via SLS or something else, and at any cost necessary.

    Don’t forget the history that shaped the EU's outlook and helped the push to develop Ariane. To protect US commercial operators, the Europeans were forbidden by the US state dept from operating their satellite commercially if it flew on a US rocket.

    Only a foolish nation would surrender their access to space and place it at the mercy of the vicissitudes of commercial and petulant interests.

  27. A "nuclear lightbulb" rocket would have high enough specific impulse to get to the Moon's surface single stage, and has negligibly radioactive exhaust. But the EU are the last group, politically, that could ever pursue it.

  28. Well, better late then never.
    But I agree with ya'll, they have to look at what is better then a fully re-usable Starship. If "it" is do-able, then go all in on it, otherwise, they will continue to diminish in importance.

  29. I think he's referring to leapfrogging them with semi-proven tech, otherwise I'd suggest they just use an anti-gravity engine. 😉

  30. A nuclear bus to ferry stuff at low cost to the moon would be something pretty useful. Eventually it would run on Lunar fuel, cutting the costs even further.

  31. Space elevators are interesting, but even carbon nano-tubes at full strength require a lot of taper for them to work on Earth. (Especially since CNT creep at high strain levels.)

    OTOH, Mars or the Moon would be great locations for them. Well, aside from having to dodge the hurtling moons on Mars, since one is below synchronous orbit.

  32. Japan seemed to have a couple of universities going all-in for space-elevator development. That would "leapfrog" the whole concept of the noisy, explosive rocket.

  33. In theory a rotovator should be feasible with a high performance air breathing plane.

    There's a nifty trick where you rely entirely on air breathing engines, and just spray liquid air into the intakes when you get too high for them to run off the atmosphere. It gets you away from needing two sets of engines, while getting you the air breathing performance in the usable part of the atmosphere.

  34. Nuclear rockets don't actually require radioactive exhaust, you know. Though I suppose Russian ones likely would anyway, even if unintended.

  35. If they are reviewing their current program, they know that they have a problem. It doesn't take a genius to understand that in order to stay competitive they need to move to fully reusable rockets. I cannot fathom that they are aiming for less.

  36. The next frontier on additive manufacturing: from PowerPoint vaporware into working rockets in a single "print it!" step.

    Ha, they wish.

  37. I think, at this point, the only thing remotely competitive in terms of performance, would be nuclear rockets. but that seems like something only Russia has the ability to do since they can silence dissent about the dirty aspect of the exhaust.

  38. It occurs to me that a rotovator would be idea to use with a starship modified to carry much less fuel, and much more cargo. The super heavy could carry it to the rotovator pickup point above the atmosphere, and the starship would have much less speed to dump, and could land itself.
    I wonder if this is the real reason the starship is more pointy?

  39. Agree with the conclusions completely. At best, they will recommend a study, to be financed by ESA, into making Ariane 6 partially reusable. Think Vulcan and the suggested idea of detaching the engines and reusing them. That will take a decade, further investment, and will not even allow an unsubsidised A6 to match the F9. In the meantime, Arianespace will use the hope of lower costs from partial reusability to justify the host governments subsidising the launcher through protection – just as ULA uses the US government for the same purpose. They will also dust off some of the fantastical renders of reusable spaceplanes and some token funding to study them as a future launcher, but like the last time they looked at them, will never build them as the French like their pet rocket business.

  40. Utilizing the latest in precision additive manufacturing each bit is formed in to bytes and slowly the PPT takes shape.

  41. I don't find launch loops particularly wild. It's not terrifically difficult engineering compared to getting a rocket working reliably AND light enough to be worth launching; Dynamic structures can actually afford a weight budget for decent structural margins, no new physics is required, nor exotic materials. And the tough parts can be tested on ground level.

    I think you could get one working in 10 years, if you had decent funding and the right people heading up the project.

    Mass drivers, also, are not particularly exotic tech, just really long linear motors. The tough part is just emerging into the atmosphere at mach 25. And paying for it, a mass driver for manned payloads would run to about 2000km.

    The catch for both is less engineering than funding.

    I agree that rockets are the proven tech, but, like I said, if you wanted to leapfrog SpaceX, you wouldn't do rockets, you'd do the NEXT big thing.

  42. That's a good point. What realistic options are there, really?

    Dynamic Launch loops seem to really be only a concept for now, a pretty wild one at it.

    Mass drivers/cannons for the Earth atmosphere? requires humongous building and many unproven techs too.

    Magnetic launch trains with levitated rails (Star Tram)? that also sounds very hypothetical and with important environmental objections. Specially for the green-bent European congress.

    Space elevators? the tech still is very immature. Atmospheric skyhooks/rotavators seem technologically closer, yet they also have to exist even as a demo.

    Laser/microwave propelled ships? also very speculative and without any working real life demos.

    Seems to me the only realistic way for going to space right now are rockets. But I admit I can be misinformed.

  43. Why once the working group has been selected and offices furnished they can get to the hard work of PPT manufacturing!

  44. Realistically, even if they reformed their whole system, at best they'd be a trailing competitor, because they'd be playing catch up the whole while. By the time they'd replicated a working Starship, SpaceX would be onto the next model.

    Their best bet would actually be to leapfrog SpaceX by going all in on building a launch loop, or something comparable.

  45. OK. Another special task force committee, who will travel across the picturesque cities of Europe, eat canapés, drink good wine & coffee and say "there is a problem, indeed", after an allotted number of euros is spent, of course.

    They don't yet realize the problem is the way they tackle the problem.

    China already got the memo, and they are reforming their launcher capabilities, with many parallel public-backed but kind-of-private efforts, working towards launcher reuse, and funding more those that advance the most.

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