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SpaceX pissing off Ariane chief with cheap rocket launches

Photo: Arianespace

As a private contractor, SpaceX has made its mark on the space launch business by significantly driving down launch costs with its reusable rocket boosters.

Factoring in their recent successes, as well as future developments from other private space launch contractors, legacy companies like the United Launch Alliance, Arianespace, and Rocosmos are feeling the pressure to develop even more efficient rockets to potentially drive down launch costs.

In a recent interview with German news publication Der Spiegel, Ariane Group’s CEO Alain Charmeau had quite a lot to say about how SpaceX was allegedly driving Europe out of the space business. With the Ariane 6 potentially costing 25% more than a SpaceX launch, Charmeau was still very defensive and hopeful that European governments would choose his company over their U.S. competitor.

The interview was originally published in German but one redditor was able to provide a working translation here.

The interview started with questions about the readiness of their next launch vehicle, Ariane 6. Charmeau responded saying that the project is on target for its planned launched July 2020, but mentioned that the firm will need solid launch contracts in order to maintain the program. Going into the numbers, he said that they “need five launches in total for 2021 and eight launches for 2022.”

When asked about why the German government chose to launch their SARah reconnaissance and radar satellites with SpaceX, he countered by saying that “Germany is paying a lot of money for the “Ariane 6” and has boosted their share about 20 percent in comparison to the precursor “Ariane 5”. I am convinced, that the German government is interested in keeping the factories in their country going. That is why satellites for the defense sector and others will be launched with our “Ariane” and “Vega” rockets.”

Charmeau even went on to say that SpaceX costs were not actually cheaper as U.S. government contracted launches cost $100 million, vs the $62 million average price tag for commercial operators. He said that the higher government prices help subsidize the lower cost launches for commercial customers. As a result, other non-U.S. governmental agencies would also benefit from the supposed discount.

He also refuted claims that SpaceX’s rockets were not cheaper, asking the interviewer if there was any real public evidence to prove that they were cost effective.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Nevertheless SpaceX says that they can offer their rockets cheaply due to reusability as well.

Charmeau: How do you know that? Do you know their real cost structure?

SPIEGEL ONLINE: For me as a customer, it is at least cheaper, to fly my satellites on a used SpaceX rocket instead on an “Ariane”.

Charmeau: Because the company charges their government too much money.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: You said that a few times now.

Charmeau: SpaceX has a market of guaranteed launches for the government which is about ten times as big as for us in Europe. With that, you can easily promote reusability for the rest.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: You once said that reusability is not worthwhile for Europe. How is that?

Charmeau: Let us say we had ten guaranteed launches per year in Europe and we had a rocket which we can use ten times – we would build exactly one rocket per year. That makes no sense. I can not tell my teams: “Goodbye, see you next year!”

Charmeau stated that his agency would have to launch at least 30 payloads a year in order to consider reusability, but said that those cost savings may not be economical to the country as a whole in the long run. He did mention that the idea has not been completely ruled out, saying that their Prometheus rocket engine and that they are working on technology to recover and reuse their booster stage.

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