Disaster: the tests of Europe's two new public rockets end up failing

Ariane 6 wet dress rehearsal

Apparently 2023 was going to be a very bad year for ESA rockets. The European Space Agency's new generation space access vectors, the Vega C and Ariane 6, had problems but these have just multiplied. First was the Ariane 6, which has failed on two occasions in static fire tests with the fully integrated first stage. And now it is the Zefiro 40 of the Vega C whose repair after an accident would have failed.

Home photo
Image of the Vega-C awaiting its maiden flight on the VV-21 mission. Source:ESA

Back to the future

Months ago, when the Vega C accident occurred in this editorial space, rivers of bits were already flowing. First because of the unacceptable accident, second for the conclusions that the commission initially offered of investigation and the treatment that was made of the situation. That Avio and Arianespace are not the companies we would want to see in charge of European rockets seems evident at this point. But, the problem is more of its proven incompetence in recent years more than anything else what makes us oppose.

Because outside of this, which has only been seen in recent times, there are factors that advocate keeping Arianespace in charge. The Ariane 4 was a great success and although lazily, the response to the Falcon 9 is correct to the extent the capabilities and requirements allow it. Beyond that, the Ariane 5 worked great until SpaceX broke the board, something no one was counting on. But this is an editorial and here we come with very sharp knives and we cannot ignore the incident when a manager laughed at SpaceX. Of course, whoever laughs last, laughs best and it was SpaceX, but at this moment Europe is not here to laugh at anything, the situation is very serious.

At this moment the future “public” rocketeer resides on three legs:

  • Ariane 6, The replacement for the Ariane 5 arrives so late that despite its launch being planned years before its withdrawal, it will finally arrive no earlier than April of next year. If we are serious, or if we open our ears a little to the most recent information and not to the official version, it is worse. No less than a year will pass between the launch of the Ariane 62 and the retirement of the 5.
  • Vega C, the next generation “light” rocket that failed on its second flight, in December of last year. A year later it seems that now 100% is known what measures must be taken to return it to operational status. But these, it is not confirmed, could imply notable changes to the Zefiro 40 and further delay its return to service.
  • Prometheus, hides the classic gibberish of a prototype, “Precursor Reusable Oxygen Methane cost Effective propulsion System.Reusable precursor to cost-effective oxygen methane propulsion system the literal translation would read. But, it is also given by classical Greek mythology where Prometheus is a titan who steals fire for humanity. This liquid methalox, methane and oxygen engine will be the basis of the Ariane 7, if it ever exists.
prometheus engine
Prometheus engine rendering. Which in a more silent way but also accumulates enormous sums of money and technical problems in its development. Source: ESA

Around with the Zefiro 40

The Vega C accident is also on its way to one year. The cause of this has been located for at least 7 months. But corrective measures are neither there nor expected. Because it now seems that there is a problem in the design of the nozzle of this engine.

Explain to me why SpaceX is able to reassemble the Starship in 6 months, but Avio cannot 10 months later with a Vega. I am not the only one looking for these explanations in any case as evidenced by the degradation in the worth of the company's shares. Although in the stock market madness you never know what can happen, but if the rumors come true and Leonardo (company), the main shareholder, sells a part of his shareholding, it will be a very hard blow.

Avio Stock YtY
Avio's performance so far this year. Source: Google Search

The jewel in the crown or the lid of the garbage can?

Everyone knows that garbage smells, that's why we put lids on the bins that contain it, to try to mitigate the smell they give off. But in the case of European rockets there is no longer anything that can serve as a stopper.

The current heavily subsidized launchers have not served the only mission they could fulfill in these new times. Which is not that complicated, keeping a door to space open is something that the old continent can and should do. Without excuses, that the Ariane 6 is not able to successfully complete, on two occasions a static test is the jewel in the crown of the problems in European rockets.

Four billion euros for a rocket that doesn't work.

I'm going to repeat it, the development costs amount to four billion euros. And the rocket is not capable of completing the minimum essential for an inaugural launch, a static fire test.

4 000 000 000 for a rocket that does not complete the minimum, but is also reduced. Because Before launch the rocket must be ignited for the entire duration of the first stage mission and is now tested in an abbreviated time.

If we look at the entire panoply of European companies seeking to align vectors in the coming years, the total sum of what they have raised does not reach half of what the Ariane 6 has cost so far. However, they will manage to launch sooner.

This is not certain, but PLD Space is aiming for within two weeks for its suborbital Miura 1. Meanwhile, RFA, with its RFA One, seems clear that it will try in April 2024, but with more credibility than that shown by Arianespace.

RFA One taking off from Kourou
Simulation of an RFA One taking off from Kourou. Source: RFA

The question is not how bad the European rocket scene is right now. On a scale of 0 to 10 we are probably at a 1, depending on how the four mentioned here perform in the next 12 months, it may improve or, against all odds, it may worsen further. Since it had no place anywhere else, I leave in this sad conclusion a question that has been on my mind for months.

Why was the flight of the last Vega delayed to 2024? Was there the possibility of a year without flights and did you want to solve it that way?