Friday, May 19, 2023

Who in European space will ask the impertinent question: How much would it cost to add a second Vulcain to the Ariane 5/6?

 Copyright 2023 Robert Clark


ArianeSpace Needs to Transition to Reusability to Survive.

 European space advocates have been lamenting that there seems to be no near term route to keeping up with SpaceX, getting reusable launchers, and towards achieving manned space flight. However, in point of fact ESA already has the components to form a launcher comparable to the Falcon 9 and at lower price, while keeping pace with SpaceX in reusability, and in manned spaceflight.

 All it would require is someone, anyone in the Europeans space community to ask the impertinent question, "How much would it cost to add a 2nd Vulcain to the Ariane 5/6?"

  For once that question is asked, and ArianeSpace forced to answer honestly, they would have to admit it could be done for only a development cost in the range of only ~$200 million. But then it would become obvious how to proceed.

 First, note that the Ariane 6 that was planned to compete with the SpaceX Falcon 9 has been pushed back to 2024, when its original launch date was in 2020, extending the time where SpaceX is cornering the market. Note also the Ariane 6 will not be reusable. In fact ArianeSpace has admitted they won't be fielding a reusable launcher until the 2030's. 

 ULA was driven to the brink of bankruptcy by denying the importance of reusability. There is little doubt the same will happen to ArianeSpace if they wait a decade to field a reusable vehicle. Independent European space observers have also made this point about the choice of the non-reusable Ariane 6:

Europe’s lack of rocket ‘audacity’ leaves it scrambling in the space race
European policymakers want to stop SpaceX from dominating the launch market.
That 2014 decision haunts French Economy Minister Bruno Le Maire, who keeps a warning of that moment on his desk.
“The European space adventure is magnificent, but in 2014 there was a fork in the road, and we didn’t take the right path,” Le Maire told a conference last September. “We should have made the choice of the reusable launcher. We should have had this audacity.”

 The Fast Route to Reusability.

 The problem with reusability for the Ariane 5 and 6 is they use solids for a large portion of their takeoff thrust. These large side boosters also make up a large portion of the cost. In fact, the situation has actually gotten worse with the Ariane 6. But the Space Shuttle program demonstrated you don't save on reuse with solid side boosters. By the time you fish the SRB's out of the ocean, tow them to port, transport them from port back to the manufacturing facility, clean them out from all the burnt on combustion products, and then finally refill them with propellant, the cost is no better than just using new ones to begin with. A little thought makes it easy to see why. Solid side boosters are just a filled in metal pipe. The cost of that metal pipe is small compared to all the processing involved in making the SRB. Keeping the same metal pipe but increasing all the needed steps for processing does not reduce the cost of the SRB.

 So to get the low cost reusable rocket you have to dispense with the SRB's. Necessarily that means you have to use additional liquid-fueled core engines. Then is adding an additional core engine a multi-billion dollar, or euro, development? 

 No! I was quite startled to find JAXA was able to add an additional hydrolox engine to the H-II first stage for only an approx. $200 million development cost.

 See the highlighted passage in this article where the cost to add another engine to the H-II was only 27 billion Yen, about $200 million: 

 But that means instead of the multi-billion current development cost of the Ariane 6, the same could have been accomplished for just a few hundred million and would also have been reusable! I made this point here:

 Thus the importance of asking that impertinent question of ArianeSpace, "How much to add an additional Vulcain to the Ariane 5/6?"

WHY Are the Far More Expensive SRB's Used Rather then the Cheaper Liquid-fueled Engines? 

 Knowledgeable ESA observers have been aware for awhile now that the ESA policies for distributing funds and costs to the differing member states do not result in the most cost effective vehicles. It’s a policy called geographical-return that requires member states costs to be apportioned by some set proportion of the billion dollar development costs. So if some member states have been contributing some large proportion of the costs through solid side boosters, that cost continues to be part of the development for new rockets or upgrades.

 The governments of the member states regard this as a good thing because it helps to keep active, and paid, the space industries and space industry employees in their countries. But another key reason why some member states like the funds for the ESA to go to develop solid rocket side boosters is because those funds help also to develop solid rockets for their defense programs. So rather than those countries having to pay the entire cost of the solid rocket missiles in their defense programs on their own, some portion of that is actually paid for by the ESA in developing solid rocket side boosters for space launchers.

 You can see why there is a great incentive for those member states, which have great influence on the direction and funding choices for the ESA, to continue to want to use solid rocket boosters in all launchers produced by the ESA.

 But the stunning fact is how much more expensive the solids are for the Ariane 6 than just adding another Vulcain engine! The latest cost figures for the Ariane 6 are the €75M for the two SRB version and €115M for the four SRB version

 This suggests, as a first order estimate, that we can take the cost of two SRB’s as €40M. But the cost of a single Vulcan is only €10 million! So the two SRB’s on the Ariane 6 base version costs 4 times more than an additional Vulcain! Therefore, again as a first order estimate, we can take the cost of a two Vulcain Ariane 6 with no SRB’s as only €45 million, ~$50 million. This compares quite favorably to current $67 million cost of the Falcon 9.

 The reason why this isn’t done can not be attributed to some supposed multi-billion development cost to add an additional Vulcain to the Ariane core. Actually, it’s the current plan for the Ariane 6 with the newly developed solids, new upper stage, and new Vinci engine whose development cost is in the $4+ billion range. It’s really quite stunning to realize the same could have been accomplished at only a ~$200 development cost simply by adding another Vulcain to the Ariane 5 core, using the same original cryogenic upper stage. Nearly a factor of 20 times cheaper!

 But nobody knows this because nobody asks that one simple question, “How much would it cost to add a second Vulcain to the Ariane 5/6?”

 Now, once you have the all-liquid Ariane 6 that costs even cheaper than the Falcon 9, you can also keep up with SpaceX in reducing price by reusability by also reusing the core stage via powered landing a la the F9 booster. Again, the solids in the current Ariane 6 version would not save on reusing them as the Space Shuttle program abundantly showed. So that huge €40 million cost just for the SRB’s on the Ariane 6(more than the cost of the entire rest of the rocket!) out of the total  €75 million would be fixed no matter how many times you wanted to reuse the core.

 It might be argued that even a fully throttled down single Vulcain would have too much thrust for a hovering landing. Actually, this is the case also with the Falcon 9. It uses what SpaceX calls "hover-slam" for landing. The thrust is precisely timed so the booster just reaches 0 velocity as it touches down. Actually, I'm not a fan of "hover-slam". Much better for the Ariane case would be to use two Vinci engines for the landing only. It is designed to be air-startable and restartable. It weighs without the nozzle extension for vacuum use only 160 kg. So two would weigh only 320kg on the first stage. It's use would allow true hovering landing for the first stage.

Three Vulcains on the Ariane 5/6 Match the Falcon 9 in Payload at a Lower Price.

 The two Vulcain Ariane 5/6 would have lower payload than the Falcon 9. But it would be quite competitive for the lucrative geosynchronous transfer orbit(GTO) used by many communications satellites, at ~6,000 kg to GTO at lower price than the F9. The F9 is at about 8,000 kg to GTO. But most satellites don't need this full capacity anyway.

 However, if we used three Vulcains we could then match the Falcon 9 in payload and still be at lower price. This comes from again using the first order estimate of €40 million for the two SRB's. So the Ariane 6 with no SRB's would be €35 million, as a first order estimate. So adding on two Vulcains would be €55 million, as a first order estimate. But this is still less than the $67 million price for the Falcon 9.

 In an upcoming blog post I'll discuss further the three Vulcain case showing it can match the Falcon 9 in payload. Intriguingly, by using multiple copies of such 3 Vulcain cores, I estimate 4 to 6, you can also get a 'superheavy' lift vehicle capable of 100-tons to LEO, a 'moon rocket'. Using multiple copies  of already existing cores allows you to get the 'superheavy' lift at far less development cost than the $20 billion of the SLS, or the $10 billion of the ill-conceived Superheavy/Starship.

 Manned Launchers.

 Finally, in regards to manned launchers, just use the all-liquid Ariane 6 since you no longer have the safety issues of using SRB’s on manned launchers.

  Robert Clark

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