Europe forced to turn to Elon Musk’s rockets in the global space race

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket carrying the company’s Crew Dragon spacecraft launches on the Demo-2 mission to the International Space Station at Launch Complex 39A May 30, 2020, at the Kennedy Space Center, Florida. (SpaceX via Getty Images)

By Matthew Field,
Published by The Telegraph, 14 August 2023

Project delays and war in Ukraine have led to a growing dependence on the Tesla billionaire

In the tropical heat on the coast of French Guiana sits a 200ft tall rocket.

Ariane 6, which was designed to carry forward the space ambitions of the European Union, has been undergoing tests at the bloc’s official space port at Guiana Space Centre.

While thousands of miles from Brussels, French Guiana is an overseas territory of France and offers Europe a gateway to orbit.

However, the project is already three years behind schedule and not expected to yield results until next year at the earliest.

The delays come at a crucial time in the new global space race: Russia is now cut off from the West’s space operations, while China is in the ascendance.

Europe has been left without a functional rocket launch capability for the first time in decades, just as space becomes increasingly contested.

As a result, Brussels has been forced to negotiate with Elon Musk’s SpaceX for use of the billionaire’s rockets to launch its sensitive Galileo spacecraft, which are satellites forming part of a sovereign navigation system.

“We have been negotiating with them for a number of launches,” says Toni Tolker-Nielsen, director of space transportation at the European Space Agency (ESA).

The agency expects to contract out four missions to SpaceX. Yet reliance on the Tesla billionaire will be uncomfortable.

Concerns about the dominance of Starlink, SpaceX’s constellation of internet satellites, have contributed to the EU’s decision to invest in its own rival network, the New York Times reported recently. Thierry Breton, a European commissioner, told the paper: “The EU cannot afford to be reliant on others.”

The Ariane 6 was designed to replace the ESA’s ageing Ariane 5 rocket, which has been in operation since 1996 Credit: JODY AMIET/AFP

In French Guiana, the Ariane 6 rocket currently at the spaceport will never fly. The current vessel is instead there only for launch checks and testing of its engines.

The Ariane 6 was designed to replace the ESA’s ageing Ariane 5 rocket, which has been in operation since 1996. Europe’s workhorse rocket was one of the more reliable launchers on the market with a 96pc success rate.

Development on the Ariane 6 began in earnest in 2014 and an initial deadline for its first launch was set for 2020.

But the timeframe for the €4.4bn (£3.8bn) project has “slipped”, admits Tolker-Nielsen.  

Europe’s space agency had hoped its latest generation of rocket, which cost between €75m and €115m per launch and can carry 21,000 kg, would be available for missions later this year, with several critical satellites poised for launch.

However, last week – after much speculation within the industry – Airbus and Safran, who are jointly developing the rockets, and the ESA pushed that deadline back yet again.

“The inaugural launch is now targeted for 2024,” said Josef Aschbacher, director general of ESA.

After the Ariane 5 flew its final mission on July 5, the bloc has now found itself without dedicated satellite launch capability for the first time since the 1980s. Critically, it is without a heavy lift vehicle that can compete with SpaceX and carry satellites for its Galileo constellation – Europe’s answer to GPS – into orbit.

Under normal circumstances, the delay would be a frustration but not a disaster in the challenging world of space travel.

However, a series of other setbacks mean the EU is at risk of losing significant ground in the new space race.

Last December, Europe’s smaller Italian-made Vega-C rocket suffered an anomaly on its second satellite mission, losing two satellites. The system has been grounded while an investigation is ongoing and modifications take place.

The war in Ukraine has cut off Europe’s access to Russia’s Soyuz rocket programme Credit: Bill Ingalls/NASA/Getty Images

Meanwhile, the war in Ukraine has cut off Europe’s access to Russia’s Soyuz rocket programme, another launcher used by ESA in the past.

“Soyuz was the back-up for Ariane 6,” says Tolker-Nielsen. “With the Ukrainian war, we stopped launches of Soyuz, obviously. All this means that we, momentarily, do not have European access to space. It puts us in a difficult situation.”

Tolker-Nielsen says ESA has held talks with ISRO, the Indian space agency, and JAXA, the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency.

But it is talks with Musk’s SpaceX, which has become the world’s most prolific rocket business, that have progressed the most.

“The availability of Falcon 9 makes it a very good choice,” Tolker-Nielsen says.

Musk has emerged as the dominant player in rocket launches thanks to the economical, reusable Falcon 9 designed by SpaceX. Private US companies such as Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin are also gaining ground.

The ESA hopes to use SpaceX for two scientific missions, one of which launched in July.

The EU will also lean on Musk for two launches of its security-critical Galileo system in a break with tradition. Typically, the system can only be launched from European territory under security rules. The SpaceX launches will still require final sign off from the European Commission, a spokesman said.

Necessity has forced Brussels to sign a security agreement with the US to “protect the integrity of the satellites and the Galileo constellation,” according to a draft proposal seen by Politico earlier this year.

“For Galileo it was necessary to establish a security agreement,” says Tolker-Nielsen.

The backdrop is growing nervousness about the power yielded by the mercurial Musk in space. European officials are said to have raised the issue of Starlink’s dominance of space-based internet technology with US counterparts, according to the New York Times.

Unease is growing over the power yielded by the mercurial Elon Musk in space Credit: Chesnot/Getty Images

The need to rely on the US may be embarrassing for Brussels, but the delays to the programme are not wholly unusual for the space sector.

“A delay of years is in no way atypical,” says Carissa Christensen, chief executive of space analysis firm BryceTech.

SpaceX has routinely missed deadlines by years, it should be pointed out. However, she adds it is a “tricky time to end up without capacity”. Satellite launch capacity is in high demand, meaning those searching for a berth may face long waits.

The Ariane programme has been held up variously by design changes and the Covid pandemic. Most recently, technical hitches have slowed progress.

A leak on the ground infrastructure of a hydrogen reservoir postponed testing last month. A second test later in July ended before a hot firing of its Vulcan rocket could take place due to a shortage of liquid oxygen.

Tests will now be rerun on August 29, with further trials in September. If all goes well, it should pave the way for the first missions next year.

Relying on Musk may be humbling but the ESA will be keen to get the testing right, rather than rush into using its own capacity before it is fully ready.

The first flight of the Ariane 5 in 1996 ended in disaster. Botched code that had been reused from a previous rocket caused the mission to end after 40 seconds in a spectacular fireball, costing Europe $370m.

Even if it does get up and running next year, it will take some time for the Ariane programme to ramp up its number of launches to compete with SpaceX.

Tolker-Nielsen says Arianespace, the company behind the rockets, is aiming for two missions in 2024, followed by six in 2025, eight in 2026, then up to 10 per year.

The programme is “already a commercial success”, he says, with companies including Amazon pre-booking space on future rockets.

In the meantime, Brussels must rely on Musk for access to the stars.

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