While US lawmakers and certain pundits panic over the alleged threat from the emerging Chinese space program (which is now replicating feats the US accomplished decades ago), European lawmakers are worried about a different competitor – an American one.
Space News quotes French Senator Bruno Sido, comparing SpaceX to ArianeSpace: “Visiting Les Mureaux is like entering an impressive laboratory. Visiting SpaceX, which occupies an old factory that once belonged to Boeing, is like entering IKEA. This company has already won many contracts, is well-supported by NASA and is building low-cost launcher that constitutes a real and serious threat.”
Citing the SpaceX competitive threat, French lawmakers are urging an early start on the next-generation Ariane 6 expendable launch vehicle.
Meanwhile, SpaceX is already testing an evolved, reusable Falcon first stage in his Grasshopper program. On November 1, the 10-story VTVL Grasshopper lifted 17.7 feet (5.4 meters, hovered, and touched down in an 8-second test hop at the SpaceX test facility in McGregor, Texas. Grasshopper consists of a Falcon 9 rocket first stage, Merlin 1D engine, four steel landing legs with hydraulic dampers, and a steel support structure.
SpaceX is operating inside of the Ariane decision cycle. Ariane 6 is intended to compete with Falcon 9, but by the time Ariane 6 becomes operational, SpaceX may have a fully reusable vehicle.
In fact, Ariane 6 appears to be a technological step backward. According to Aviation Week, the French space agency CNES favors a solid-rocket design for Ariane 6. The reasoning appears to be that a solid rocket could survive longer while losing market share. “Bonnal says even in the worst-case scenarios that assume a 20% decline in market price after 2020, when the rocket would enter service, the solid-rocket configurations could survive on eight launches per year, including three institutional ones for government customers.”
ArianeSpace seems to be securing its line of retreat, as it prepares to surrender the launch market to SpaceX.