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

Share
Related Topics
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.

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Customer Service Executive

£18000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Retail Buyer / Ecommerce Buyer

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Working closely with the market...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - CAD Software Solutions Sales

£20000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A reputable company, famed for ...

Ashdown Group: Client Accountant Team Manager - Reading

Negotiable: Ashdown Group: The Ashdown Group has been engaged by a highly resp...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Letter from the Education Editor: This shocking abuse of teachers should be taken seriously

Richard Garner
Brand loyalty: businessmen Stuart Rose (pictured with David Cameron at the Conservative conference in 2010) was among the signatories  

So, the people who always support the Tories... are supporting the Tories? Has the world gone mad?

Mark Steel
War with Isis: Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria's capital

War with Isis

Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria
Scientists develop mechanical spring-loaded leg brace to improve walking

A spring in your step?

Scientists develop mechanical leg brace to help take a load off
Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock: How London shaped the director's art and obsessions

Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock

Ackroyd has devoted his literary career to chronicling the capital and its characters. He tells John Walsh why he chose the master of suspense as his latest subject
Ryan Reynolds interview: The actor is branching out with Nazi art-theft drama Woman in Gold

Ryan Reynolds branches out in Woman in Gold

For every box-office smash in Ryan Reynolds' Hollywood career, there's always been a misconceived let-down. It's time for a rethink and a reboot, the actor tells James Mottram
Why Robin Williams safeguarded himself against a morbid trend in advertising

Stars safeguard against morbid advertising

As film-makers and advertisers make increasing posthumous use of celebrities' images, some stars are finding new ways of ensuring that they rest in peace
The UK horticulture industry is facing a skills crisis - but Great Dixter aims to change all that

UK horticulture industry facing skills crisis

Great Dixter manor house in East Sussex is encouraging people to work in the industry by offering three scholarships a year to students, as well as generous placements
Hack Circus aims to turn the rule-abiding approach of TED talks on its head

Hack Circus: Technology, art and learning

Hack Circus aims to turn the rule-abiding approach of TED talks on its head. Rhodri Marsden meets mistress of ceremonies Leila Johnston
Sevenoaks is split over much-delayed decision on controversial grammar school annexe

Sevenoaks split over grammar school annexe

If Weald of Kent Grammar School is given the go-ahead for an annexe in leafy Sevenoaks, it will be the first selective state school to open in 50 years
10 best compact cameras

A look through the lens: 10 best compact cameras

If your smartphone won’t quite cut it, it’s time to invest in a new portable gadget
Paul Scholes column: Ross Barkley played well against Italy but he must build on that. His time to step up and seize that England No 10 shirt is now

Paul Scholes column

Ross Barkley played well against Italy but he must build on that. His time to step up and seize that England No 10 shirt is now
Why Michael Carrick is still proving an enigma for England

Why Carrick is still proving an enigma for England

Manchester United's talented midfielder has played international football for almost 14 years yet, frustratingly, has won only 32 caps, says Sam Wallace
Tracey Neville: The netball coach who is just as busy as her brothers, Gary and Phil

Tracey Neville is just as busy as her brothers, Gary and Phil

The former player on how she is finding time to coach both Manchester Thunder in the Superleague and England in this year's World Cup
General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

The masterminds behind the election

How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

Machine Gun America

The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

The ethics of pet food

Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?