Of those 25 companies, less than 10 have raised more than €10 million in funding, with only Isar Aerospace cracking the €100 million mark. Together, these companies have raised less than €450 million (this amount is an estimation due to the lack of public information for some of the launch startups).
Now, let’s look at a single publicly-funded project awarded to Avio. In July, Avio received €217.5 million for a two-stage launch vehicle demonstrator and €120 million for the development of a LOX-methane first-stage engine. That’s close to €340 million for a single project, and that’s not including funding for the M10 second-stage engine or additional funding that may be awarded in the coming years.
And that’s one program. If you factor in Vega C, Vega E, Ariane 6, Themis, and Prometheus, that number soars into the billions. If anything, Avio and ArianeGroup have been given a massive leg up on the competition for no other reason than political favour developed over decades of market dominance.
Nationalism to blame
In the article, Roussel primarily blamed nationalism in Germany and Italy for the “dispersion of resources.” There’s definitely an argument that this is happening in Germany (although the country has arguably taken over its native France to become the primary benefactor for ArianeGroup), but Italy?
Avio is an established aerospace company that plays a vital role in the European launch ecosystem, which includes its partnership with ArianeGroup to develop a common booster that is utilized on both the Vega C and Ariane 6 vehicles. So, he can’t be talking about Avio.
That just leaves, as far as I can see, Sidereus Space Dynamics, a tiny launch startup that hasn’t raised more than €2 million to date (all of which has been private funding). How this tiny startup is pulling resources away from the cash-guzzling Ariane programme is beyond me. They’re obviously punching well above their weight.
If you are talking sheer numbers of launch startups, the United Kingdom and France are your primary suspects. And in the United Kingdom following Brexit, you may even have an argument that nationalism is a primary cause. However, it’s pretty ludicrous to state that companies like Orbex and Skyrora are siphoning a significant portion of resources or even customers away from ArianeGroup and its Ariane 5 and 6 launch vehicles.
Rules for thee
After invoking the threat of nationalism, Roussel moves on to the impact so many launch startups will have on the environment. In particular, the ArianeGroup boss takes aim at companies developing “non-reusable engines, some of which run on kerosene.” He seems to have completely forgotten that his own company’s next-gen Ariane 6 vehicle utilises non-reusable engines, including solid-fuel boosters.
Glossing over the hypocrisy, the article then pivots to sharing the virtues of ArianeGroup’s Themis and Prometheus projects that are focused on developing a LOX-methane-powered booster demonstrator. The projects are expected to form the basis of future launch vehicles, including Maia, a reusable microlauncher that is being developed by the ArianeGroup subsidiary Maiaspace.
What’s notable about this is that ArianeGroup has received over €100 million for Prometheus
alone. That’s as much as the most well-funded German microlauncher startup has raised to develop its entire vehicle, from engines to structures and everything in between.
2022 ESA ministerial council meeting
In the last paragraph of the L'Echo article, we get a clue into what promoted this conversation. Roussel states, “For these programs, decisions are needed at the next ESA ministerial meeting in November.”
ESA is heading towards what may be one of the most important ministerial council meetings in its history. New ESA director general Josef Aschbacher has forged a progressive path for the agency since assuming the top job, with a focus on commercialization and calling on industry to step up and take a leading role in the European space effort.
This new path for the agency promises opportunities for bold, decisive startups and pressure for entrenched stalwarts who have happily operated without competition for decades.