Europe will (finally) develop its own reusable launcher

Better late than never: four years after SpaceX’s first “recycled” flight, Europe has announced that it will finally develop its own reusable space launcher.

In recent years, when it comes to French aerospace, the general public has mostly heard about Thomas Pesquet or the Kourou site, from which the James Webb Space Telescope will soon be leaving. When it comes to equipment and especially rockets, the Americans are still carving out the lion’s share. But the Old Continent now intends to challenge this domination. Bruno Le Maire announced yesterday the upcoming arrival of Maya, a new reusable launcher that will fly under the European flag.

It will be a small volume satellite launcher developed by ArianeGroup. Its CEO André-Hubert Roussel, interviewed by France Inter, assures us that the project does not “not start from zero”And intends to offer a finished product by 2026. A schedule to say the least ambitious, knowing the development times and delays which are an integral part of this industry. But this rather short period is motivated by a situation of relative urgency; it is above all about closing the gap with the Americans. And for French aerospace, it’s starting to sound like a matter of life and death.

“Fix a bad strategic choice”

To understand the origin of this emergency, we have to go back ten years. At the time, this philosophy was still very daring; the European institutions have therefore played it safe by betting on a single-use launcher for Ariane 6. But with hindsight, it is now clear that this was a “bad strategic choice”, As Bruno Le Maire has admitted bluntly. And the word is weak, knowing how much the aerospace landscape has changed in the wake of SpaceX.

The firm of Elon Musk has since shown a certain mastery in the matter with its Falcon 9, which is today the undisputed star of the catalog. Today, its reuse is more or less routine. This approach has therefore established itself as the new standard. What makes Ariane 6 look like a real technological dinosaur. Not ideal for a project costing more than 3.6 billion euros which was to bring French aerospace back to the forefront …

Europe finally in working order?

On the side of ArianeGroup and the French government, however, we defend the merits of this trajectory. The minister said to himself “convinced that this approach is complementary to Ariane 6”. This is probably a way to avoid a bitter admission of failure. But it is not just tongue in cheek so far. Because this announcement still contains a strong message in the background; one can indeed interpret it as a sign of the reconciliation between German and French aerospace.

As a reminder, the two countries are the two main contributors to the project (56% for France and 22% for Germany, according to Le Monde). But they disagreed completely on the strategy to be adopted; our neighbors defended a very different approach from that of Paris. Rather counterproductive, because unlike the United States, Europe manages space collegially; if a country puts the brakes on all four irons, the whole program is paralyzed.

This factor directly contributed to the accumulated delay compared to Uncle Sam. Maïa’s announcement therefore seems to close this chapter, oh so counterproductive. European aerospace therefore instantly regains color. Will this be enough to “compete with the Americans and soon the Chinese”, As the minister says? Before taking plans in this way, it would already be interesting to make up some of our delay. But for the first time in some time, Europe appears to have a coherent roadmap in this strategic sector, and that’s already good news. It will therefore be very interesting to see whether the efforts made by Europe will match its ambitions.

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