Don't worry about one flop on the launch pad

Despite the fireworks over French Guiana, the European Space Agency is getting it right, argues Tom Wilkie
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The Independent Online
Even the acronyms are eloquent. The glamorous exploits of American astronauts on the manned missions of the space shuttle have made Nasa a familiar organisation. Until this week's spectacular failure of the maiden flight of the Ariane 5 rocket, ESA was shrouded in such obscurity that the initials of the European Space Agency have always had to be spelt out. But the reality of the space business is very different from the public relations hype. ESA is the most successful, efficient and cost- effective space organisation in the world. Nasa is a troubled organisation in a deep crisis of morale and money.

ESA makes modest demands on the public purse; Nasa drains the resources of the American taxpayer. ESA has a forward-looking programme of developing new rockets to keep it in business in the next century; Nasa is stuck with a technological dinosaur - the space shuttle - for which it cannot afford a replacement.

ESA's Ariane 4 rocket - the predecessor to the one that blew up this week - is the most reliable satellite launcher in the world. Out of 86 launches, there have been only seven failures. ESA's commercial arm, Arianespace, has captured around 60 per cent of the world's commercial satellite launching business - mainly communications, weather forecasting, and earth observation satellites. Its annual revenue exceeds $1bn and its order book is comfortably full.

Immediately after the failure of Ariane 5, the president of Arianespace, Claude Bigot, reminded journalists that the 87th satellite launch of the Ariane 4 was scheduled to take place in just eight days and that it would go-ahead as planned. Ariane 4 has a waiting list of 45 launches, worth nearly $5bn, including eight more scheduled for this year.

Stephane Chenard, an analyst at the Paris-based space consultancy Euroconsult, said that the private sector increasingly finances the commercial use of space, as banks realise they can achieve the 10 to 15 per cent return on investment they require. In the past, only governments dared put up the stake money.

Demand from dynamic Asian economies will supply 25 to 30 per cent of the market growth for satellites, says Olivier du Passage, a director at Le Blanc de Nicolay, a satellite insurer. From 1996 until 2010, between 350 and 530 satellites are expected to be launched, of which at least 236 would be for communications and television, M. Chenard said.

Arianespace's share of that is estimated at $25-$40 bn, with the heavyweight Ariane 5 key to Europe's market share. The existing Ariane 4 will be obsolete within 10 years as payloads get heavier and Ariane 5 will be needed to provide the productivity, reliability and low cost that clients demand. Even so, the technical performance of Ariane 4 is superior to that of Nasa's space shuttle, because the European launcher is capable of putting payloads into the coveted "geostationary orbit" - a position in which the satellite orbits at the same rate as the earth turns on its axis and thus appears to "hang" in the sky, stationary over the same spot on earth. From this position it can constantly observe the weather, for example, and remain continuously in radio contact with the same ground station. Geostationary orbit is about 36,000km above the earth's surface. The space shuttle, in contrast, can reach only a low earth orbit of about 400km. The shuttle does have greater lifting power however, and can carry a satellite plus rocket in its cargo bay allowing a second launch, taking the satellite from low earth orbit up to geostationary.

And although Ariane is an expendable rocket, the European launcher is cheaper than the "reusable" shuttle, precisely because of that factor that attracts the PR hype: it costs money to meet the higher safety standards of manned missions.

It was not always thus. ESA was born out of the ashes of a botched attempt in the 1960s at giving Europe a place in space. Its predecessor, the European Launcher Development Organisation, built the Europa rocket, based on the old British Blue Streak missile. It cost three times the original estimate; the rocket failed and the organisation was wound up in 1974.

It is a measure of ESA's achievement - and a testament to the diplomatic and managerial skills of its first director general, the Briton Roy Gibson - that out of the bitter recriminations of the mid-1970s, the agency has built up a successful commercial launcher business and has put in place a coherent programme of scientific research in space. ESA's annual budget of around $3bn a year appears expensive, but it is less than a fifth of Nasa's. Europe's total spending on space - military and civil, launcher technology as well as scientific research - is about 16 per cent of that of the US, even though the total GDP of ESA's member states is roughly comparable to the US.

Against all the odds, this is a European success story. The expensive firework display over French Guiana this week is no reason to question or doubt our membership of this particular European club.