Monday, December 15, 2014

US and French Politicians Demand Domestic Launch Providers

          by Chuck Black

A scandalized sénateur Gournac. Photo c/o LUDOVIC/REA/LUDOVIC/REA.
Unlike Canada, where we officially outsource our space launches to the lowest bidder, politicians from both France and the United States have publicly rebuked any suggestion that they shouldn't "buy local," when it comes to their launch providers, even if the cost of launch ends up being much, much higher.

As outlined in the December 12th, 2014 SpaceNews article "Airbus Upbraided for Shopping SpaceX," French senator Alain Gournac, a veteran member of the French Parliamentary Space Group, called the very thought of launching a French telecommunications satellite on a US built SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket “scandalous" and "unacceptable.”

The article also suggested that competition from SpaceX is more than a little responsible for "single-handedly" causing the ESA to invest €4Bln euros ($5.8Bln CDN) into the new Ariane 6 launch vehicle in order to effectively compete with the SpaceX offering.

The satellite in question is part of the European Data Relay Service (EDRS), a planned constellation of geosynchronous orbit (GEO) communications satellites which will relay information and data between other spacecraft, unmanned aerial vehicle's (UAV), and ground stations. EDRS is being implemented as a public private partnership (PPP) between the twenty nation European Space Agency (ESA) and private partner Airbus Defence & Space with Airbus holding responsibility for deciding on the launch provider.

Initial rumours suggested that Airbus was approaching a variety of low cost providers such as SpaceX. but Airbus issued a press release later on the same day, Airbus responded to the rumours by indicating that it had not signed a contract with SpaceX for EDRS, and would soon enter negotiations with ESA and with French based Arianespace for the launch.

US president Obama. Photo c/o Forward Progressives.
Also on that same day, the American's were busy defending the long term viability of their domestic launch capability. 

As outlined in the December 12th, 2014 Los Angeles Times article "Congress OKs bill banning purchases of Russian-made rocket engines," the US Senate "voted 89-11 to approve a bill Friday that would ban the Pentagon from awarding future rocket launch contracts to firms using Russian engines."

The article also said that, "the ban is a blow to the Boeing-Lockheed venture called United Launch Alliance (ULA), which has relied on using the (RD-180) Russian (rocket) engines under an exclusive and expensive deal it has had with the Air Force since 2006."

But while the measure had already passed the US House of Representatives and was expected to be signed into law by US president Barack Obama, ULA did succeed at weakening the bill to allow the use Russian engines already in its inventory. ULA had purchased a number of RD-180 rocket engines from the Russians, which it says is enough for military launches over the next two years, and wanted to expend its existing inventory before building a domestically produced replacement. 

Curiously enough, the bill is perceived of as being another victory for Hawthorne, CA based SpaceX, which wants at least some of the US Air Force's satellite launching business. As outlined in the December 11th, 2014 Bloomberg article, "Musk’s SpaceX Closer to Certification for Launches, U.S. Says," SpaceX CEO Elon Musk is close to winning the certification his company needs to begin launching satellites for the US military.

Musk is a South Africa-born, Canadian American business magnate, engineer and investor who received his Canadian citizenship in 1988 at the age of 17 and attended Queens University in Kingston, ON for two years before transferring to the University of Pennsylvania in 1992 and becoming an American citizen in 2002.

Given the circumstances, this would seem to have been a smart choice. No one sane in this industry ever seems to stay in Canada.

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