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On Monday, French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire announced plans for Europe to develop a reusable rocket at a more rapid pace to compete more effectively with SpaceX.

“Europe for the first time … will have access to a reusable launcher,” Le Maire said, according to Reuters, “In other words, we’ll have our SpaceX, we’ll have our Falcon 9. We’ll make up for the poor strategic choice we made 10 years ago.”


The new plan calls for the larger, France-based rocket firm Arianegroup to develop a new small-lift rocket called the Maa by the year 2026. This is four years ahead of the timeline previously set by the European Space Agency for a significant development. Large, reusable rocket.

Although technical details are sparse, Maa will not be Europe’s “Falcon 9”. It will have a lift capacity of up to 1 metric ton in low Earth orbit and will be powered by a reusable Prometheus rocket engine, powered by methane and liquid oxygen. This engine, which remains in its early stages of development, produces thrust equal to that of a single Merlin 1D rocket engine, which powers SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket. But since there are nine engines on the SpaceX rocket, it can lift 15 times more than the proposed Maa in fully reusable mode.

Tangled Rocket Politics

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Rocket politics in Europe is complex and often difficult to resolve. But the announcement underscores two key themes. One is the isolated and long-running rivalry between France, Germany and Italy for launch supremacy in Europe, and the other is tensions between institutional launch companies and commercial upstarts backed by state governments. This announcement pulls on both of those threads.

France, Germany and Italy are constantly battling for funding and aerospace jobs. Typically, the European Space Agency sets priorities for rocket development and distributes funds to major contractors Arianegroup, which has facilities in France and Germany, and Avio, which is based in Italy.

In particular, the French government will provide funds for the development of Maa on its own. Back in October, President Emmanuel Macron said that France would invest €30 billion in the “France 2030” plan to promote industrial innovation. About €1.5 billion of that funding will go towards space enterprises.

Europe learns that its launch industry has lagged behind more agile competitors, notably SpaceX. One of the ways ArianeGroup has sought to compete was its announcement of job cuts last September to reduce costs. However, the French government felt that Arianegroup’s engine development site in Vernon, France was particularly difficult from those cuts.

The Le Maire announcement seeks to remedy this, as development of the Prometheus rocket engine is taking place at the Vernon location in northern France, and the Mae rocket will be manufactured there. Le Maire said on Monday that there are about 800 jobs at the propulsion site in Vernon. By 2025, he said, there would be about 1,000.

Such statements underscore that the main prize for European governments does not seem to be so much competing rockets, but ensuring that the maximum number of well-paying space jobs are located within their borders.

Institute vs Startup

In the past five years Germany, Italy and the United Kingdom (which is a member of the European Space Agency but not the European Union) have begun promoting the development of micro-launch companies that are building rockets capable of lifting several hundred kilograms. In low-Earth orbit—there’s little more than the Maya rocket aspires to do.

These companies, which include Issar Aerospace, Rocket Factory Augsburg, and High Impulse in Germany, PLD Space in Spain, and Orbex and Skyora in the UK, operate more like the US commercial space industry. Each has relied primarily on private funding for the development of its rocket technologies and plans to compete for commercial contracts to launch small satellites.

France has been largely excluded from this new commercial launch industry, and Paris-based Ariane Group probably wouldn’t mind stamping out the competition. In other words, France could be quite worried about losing its projection leadership in Europe.

Giving ArianeGroup a major development contract for the Maa rocket would be a way to eliminate competition in other countries before they happen. A European source suggested that paying ArianeGroup now is like the United States funding United Launch Alliance 15 years ago for a reusable rocket that would have caused SpaceX considerable damage during its formative years, or would probably have been killed.

French Agreement

At the same time, France is also interested in developing a native new space launch industry. french aerospace reporter Vincent Lamignon said: The country plans to soon call for projects on reusable micro-launchers, smaller than the Maa project. Expected to compete with Nascent startups French ventures Orbital Systems and Strato Space Systems, the French space agency will provide technical support and launch contracts to the winners.

“It’s a real break from French strategy, and clearly inspired by the United States,” Lamignon said.

So, the French’s new plan includes working with Germany, France and Italy on the development of the Ariane 6 rocket, which will launch medium- and heavy-lift to the continent, including European science satellites and other government payloads. and are competing globally for commercial geostationary satellite launches. But when it comes to promoting small launchers and a commercial space industry, it seems each country is leading its own way.

Whether it’s good enough to compete with SpaceX is a question that can probably be answered with a simple “no.” By 2026, SpaceX will probably launch starships for less than the price of Maa.

SpaceX has embarked on a full decade on Europe in developing a reusable rocket – the first Falcon 9 rocket landed six years ago. And SpaceX’s focus isn’t on maximizing jobs, it’s on minimizing the need for them in a ruthless pursuit of lower launch costs.

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