“Minky”-shines In the French Space Sector

Old German pop music references and French crocodile tears of launch service competition? Read on! This site contains my opinions and ideas only, not the opinions or ideas of any organization I work for. It’s my idea playground, and I’m inviting you in. Welcome!

Ariane chief seems frustrated with SpaceX for driving down launch costs

Whoo-boy! An American summary of an English translation of a German interview of a French space launch manufacturing director. This seems like some comedy from the 1960’s, and only Clouseau is missing. I had to make sure this Ars Technica story was on the mark, so, with Nena’s “Irgendwie, Irgendwo, Irgendwann” and Dschingis Khan’s “Moskau” playing in the background to set the mood, I went back to read me some German for a bit (just kidding about “Moskau”–although I did listen to Sandra and Falco–but never ever Modern Talking).

For the most part, the translation of the interview with Alain Charmeau captures the conversation pretty well. And, well, we see an older European in denial. Or someone who doesn’t believe a blind beggar can be a lookout. He believes SpaceX’s policy of charging U.S. government and military customers about 30% more (in NASA’s case, 50%) for launches than a commercial launch equates to a government subsidy (he’s not the only one, by the way–there are some obvious American Francophiles saying the same kind of thing). Never mind the fact Elon Musk has noted this increase is necessary to cover for all the magical mission assurance dust SpaceX needs to provide those customers some peace of mind. Like Linus’ security blanket–but more expensive.

Based on Clous–I mean, Charmeau’s kind of logic, ULA should be a monster. The American company definitely received a lot more money for its services from the U.S. government and military than SpaceX ever has. And ULA’s launch prices went up a lot over the years. Using more of the same logic in the interview, this would mean ULA had incentive to launch European satellites for less than SpaceX’s $62 million and lots of opportunity to put Arianespace out of business. ULA would have cranked down commercial pricing so low that SpaceX never would have had a chance to even launch. But I’m pretty sure that never happened.

One somewhat disturbing thing during the interview is the veiled accusation Charmeau makes that the United States just doesn’t want Europe playing in space. That we’ll do anything to keep Europe out of space. Let’s think on that for a minute…

…um, that’s giving our government and military a lot more credit than either deserves. NASA and the U.S. military just seem about as lost as Charmeau. NASA can barely keep its favorite programs running, while the reason why the U.S. military is in space is because of constant demands of doing more with less. Space helps with that sure, but even the military services and agencies are more worried about THEIR space pie than Europe’s.

This accusation also displays a very egotistic/narcissistic/Eurocentric vision, which, quite frankly, isn’t really on the radar of the U.S., it’s citizens, and it’s servants–civil or military. Europe is not the center of the space world. Sorry. The Germans make great stuff. So do the French. But Europe’s paltry number of launches conducted annually, combined with a slow ops-tempo, are not something that keeps a senator, president, or general up at night. This state of affairs does not mean Europe’s sciences and technologies are irrelevant–they definitely are not. But maybe the way they choose to compete for launch services is.

But maybe the U.S. should be worried, because sometimes facts get in the way of a good story. I don’t think for one minute that most level-headed Americans will feel sympathy for Ariane Group in this interview. But the interview wasn’t meant for American consumption–it was meant for Europeans. And these Europeans may be all too willing to go along with this story. It’s something that could be “truthy” to them–especially with a certain administration almost intentionally downplaying Europe’s role in the world.

The whole interview shows Charmeau’s views on what makes SpaceX a competitor are kind of like Clouseau’s focusing on the beggar and the minky while the bank in front of him is being robbed. Funny and sad at the same time.

9 thoughts on ““Minky”-shines In the French Space Sector

  1. Hi, I kind of think you underestimate the true power of the European space capabilities. Just one example: the largest SatCom operator (in revenue and number of operational satellites) in the world, is SES, a European company. All the money made is flowing into Europe. SatCom is the biggest part of the global space economy.
    A second example, benchmarking what ESA does for its budget dwarfs NASA big time.
    Just my thoughts. Not saying Arianespace is not in trouble, but Ariane 6 will be a success, just from the perspective that Europe wants independent access to Space.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Erik!
      I don’t think I said European Space capabilities are underestimated. It’s just that the U.S. is wrestling with its own issues. If anything, Europe is generally considered “friendly” towards the U.S. and does not need to be worried about.
      As for SatCom being the biggest… It depends on what you include in that category. For pure SatCom, it isn’t, but if you include Direct to Home, then, sure. But either category has been very, very stagnant for a while, with almost no growth. Which is a problem for anyone in that industry.
      I think, barring some sort of economic disaster, Ariane will be fine, if a little diminished, for a variety of reasons. Which is why the interview seems that much more odd to me.
      Thanks, – – John


  2. So, yesterday we were commenting this interview with some colleges at work. It was truly…not a good one. In my opinion a great disaster. What I want to point out are a few things that were kind of mention but not well elaborate/answer (in my view) in the interview. Again all this comment is my personal opinion, around the idea that the US wants Europe out of Space. I think that here, really what is missing is some explanation (to European people especially) of what are the differences between Europe and other space powers, and how the launch market works and how SpaceX and Ariane work there. And what does really implied if we follow up our “cost-price” as only logic to chose launchers.
    First, the peculiarity of Europa launch space sector is that while US, Russia, and China can survive with their own domestic demands, Europe is highly dependent on the open commercial market. Or in other words, no commercial market, no Ariane. And while SpaceX can lose commercial contracts and still live out of government ones, Ariane can’t do the same. And here we go with another funny thing in Europe: the view of the launch market and the comparison of SpaceX and Ariane.
    Our governments and agencies usually explain to the great public that they launch with Russia or SpaceX due to “cheapest” launch prices. Where we think about the launch market as an open one. While indeed it is not open for everything. And especially for military or governmental payloads. If US or Russia want to launch a military payload, they won’t go for the “cheapest” launch price. They will go for a domestic launch provider, regardless of the price. While here in Europe we have no problem with having or military payloads or even the most iconic civil ones (as Sentinels or Galileo) flying with foreign launchers. And I think is a huge mistake. So when our politicians speak about going with the most effective cost launcher, they should explain also that when we are looking at launch possibilities, the cost is one of the other rationales that we can choose to make our decisions. But that independence or autonomy is another important one. And that countries like US or Russia, are using that one since the beginning of the space age. And thus, it doesn’t matter if we have the cheapest launcher, in the end, some payloads will never be launched in our Ariane. No matter how good we can make it.
    Also, differences between SpaceX and Ariane: The access they have to different markets. SpaceX has access to DoD launches or NASA contracts that are totally captive to US companies. While Ariane can’t benefit from a European “captive” market for the moment. And that’s why Ariane is stressing out the need of the European Commission or ESA of getting a compromise of launching with them for Ariane 6. Because in the end, everyone is playing for their own industries, expect Europe in that part. And the support of a captive market is something really important for a launch provider. And for the moment, only Ariane has managed to survive without one.
    So, if SpaceX goes to compete against Ariane, for me we have to explain that we are not in the same conditions and that we can’t see as a “cost/price” competition exclusively. Because in the end, the way the US and Europe space sectors work, the different access to different launch markets that SpaceX or Ariane have, and also the rationale of independence and autonomy are all things that need to be added into the discussion. And all this, leaving out the different advantages and new technologies that can be used to reduce price and be profitable that either SpaceX or Ariane can use. And that can be another interesting discussion.
    In the end, I think that when we go into discussions about SpaceX vs Ariane and we talk only about the prices, we as Europeans, are going into a trap. Because the competition is not only about prices, is about two space sectors and the way the work.
    But as I said at the beginning, I personally think the interview was really bad addressing this issues. And indeed I think we need much more education as Europeans about our space sector and how the launch market work worldwide.
    Well John, as always nice to read you. And nice to exchange views with you.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Angel!
      Those are good, relevant points! Military agencies in the US must use US launch providers. In the case of when only ULA existed, the military was so desperate to keep ULA alive, it paid any cost to do so. Thankfully, that’s changing.
      The launch market has not been “open” since the beginning. We aren’t there, yet, but that’s changing, too.
      Thanks Angel!

      Liked by 1 person

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