The head of one of the companies that would become Airbus once gave journalists a translation lesson.
“Whenever you hear us say a program is ‘strategic,’ what we mean is we don’t earn a dime on it,” he said. “Launchers are strategic for us.”
A few years later, the U.S. Air Force — the world’s biggest, best-funded space agency — came to the same conclusion, allowing two struggling startups, Boeing and Lockheed Martin, to merge their rocket programs to form United Launch Alliance.
The Air Force had concluded that neither of these giants would remain viable with separate launcher operations despite dividing exclusive access to the U.S. government market, which was then and may still be the only launch market that might be called lucrative.
Have things changed? There’s reason for doubt. Europe’s Ariane 5 rocket has a flawless record since 2002 and regularly racks up 50 percent or more of the global commercial launch market.
Despite this, the Arianespace launch consortium has been unable to earn a dime without $100 million in annual subsidies from the European Space Agency.
It’s possible that Arianespace pays its contractors — who are its shareholders — too much for their work.
We’re about to find out. Europe’s launch sector is reorganizing to develop the Ariane 6. How many thousands of jobs will be eliminated is unknown. What is certain is that ESA governments, divided on whether launchers are “strategic,” said their annual subsidy would end once Ariane 6 reaches its cruise phase around 2023.
Airbus Safran Launchers leads an industrial team now ferreting out high-margin contractor pockets in an attempt to meet Ariane 6’s design-to-cost goals while allowing the industrial team to make a living. The goal: everybody cries, but nobody dies.
Check back in 2023 to see how that works out for launch-sector payrolls in France, Germany and elsewhere. There are 12,000 jobs in Europe now tied to launch vehicles.
None of these events so far have deviated from the basic rule: To make a go of launchers, you need a Daddy Warbucks as a customer (strategic-interest-believing governments), or as an owner (Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson).
All of which brings us to Britain, which for decades viewed rockets as someone else’s strategic priority. Then, in December 2015, the U.K. National Space Policy announced the goal of entering the commercial launch business — not with a potential technology breakthrough such as Reaction Engines Ltd.’s Skylon, but with a conventional small-satellite launcher.
Candidate launch sites have been scouted. Small-satellite markets are being assessed.
Britain’s space sector, which has been the fastest growing in Europe in the past five years, is now examining whether a U.K. launch base is a good idea. A preliminary decision is expected later this year. U.K. officials swear they’ll take profit and loss into account.
But don’t underestimate the power of enchantment on otherwise sober British government and industry officials at the thought of having their very own rocket. If it’s a strategic asset they want, then label it that way and learn why someone once defined a launch base as a hole in the ground into which money is poured.
If it’s a successful business they’re looking for, well….
Homer’s Odysseus put beeswax in the crew’s ears, and ordered them to tie him to the mast to resist the Sirens. Earplug technology has advanced, but otherwise the tactic remains valid.