Q&A with Stéphane Israël, chairman and CEO of Arianespace

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File photo of Stephane Israel, Arianespace's chairman and CEO. Credit: European Commission
File photo of Stephane Israel, Arianespace’s chairman and CEO. Credit: European Commission

Arianespace chief executive Stéphane Israël recently discussed his company’s outlook with Spaceflight Now, touching on the light-class Vega rocket’s business prospects, the launch manifest in 2016, Arianespace’s view of innovation in the launch marketplace, and how the company plans to compete in the coming decade.

Based near Paris with majority ownership by Airbus Safran Launchers, Arianespace is on the cusp of achieving 12 launches this year, the highest annual mark for the company since 2002.

The most recent flight by a solid-fueled Vega booster Dec. 3 carried the European Space Agency’s LISA Pathfinder gravitational probe test mission, and it was the last Vega launch fully sponsored by ESA to demonstrate the rocket’s capabilities before full commercial exploitation.

With the successful Dec. 3 flight, the Vega rocket is now considered fully operational. Developed with Italian leadership, Vega is sized to deliver a 1,500-kilogram (3,300-pound) Earth observing satellite to polar orbit, but Israel said its versatility allows the rocket to carry out a variety of missions.

The Vega rocket operates alongside the heavy-lift Ariane 5 and medium-class Russian-built Soyuz at the Guiana Space Center in South America.

Israël said Arianespace is poised to win more than half of the large commercial launch competitions this year. Last year, Arianespace and rival SpaceX were evenly matched in launch contract wins.

New products are on the horizon for Arianespace, with the Ariane 6 rocket due for its first demonstration launch in December 2020. It will replace the heavy-duty Ariane 5, which will fly for the last time around 2023.

The Vega-C booster is scheduled for its first launch in 2018, offering rides for heavier satellites than the existing Vega can handle.

Spaceflight Now’s Stephen Clark recently spoke with Stéphane Israël at Arianespace’s launch base in French Guiana, and the transcript of the discussion is presented here.

Q: What has Vega demonstrated with the LISA Pathfinder launch?

A: LISA Pathfinder was a specific elliptical mission aboard Vega as opposed to other satellites we have already launched. The previous Vega missions delivered satellites to LEO (Low Earth Orbit), SSO (Sun-Synchronous Orbit), and a suborbital trajectory with IXV. With LISA Pathfinder we had separation of the first three stages within minutes of the launch, then the first burn of the AVUM upperstage, a long ballistic phase and finally the last burn of the AVUM (fourth stage) with separation one hour and 45 minutes after liftoff.
So in terms of duration of the mission, in terms of orbit, it was for Vega yet another demonstration of its versatility. We have now demonstrated a wide range of missions with Vega. I must say not only in terms of orbit, but in terms also of configuration, because if you take the first two missions of Vega, the configuration was with multiple payloads.
We have gone to LEO, SSO, suborbital and now elliptical orbit with the satellite maneuvering to L1. So we can now say that it’s four different orbits. Also, the configuration of Vega has changed with multi-payload and single passenger launches. We have used the VESPA structure with one launch, and we have accommodated multiple payloads on another. So Vega has done four single launches and two multi-payload launches in two different configurations. For VV01, there was a plate and for VV02 we had VESPA. The VESPA allows us to carry two satellites, one in an upper position and one in a lower position.

A Vega rocket launched on its sixth flight Dec. 3 with the European Space Agency's LISA Pathfinder mission. Credit: ESA/CNES/Arianespace – Photo Optique Video du CSG – JM Guillon
A Vega rocket launched on its sixth flight Dec. 3 with the European Space Agency’s LISA Pathfinder mission. Credit: ESA/CNES/Arianespace – Photo Optique Video du CSG – JM Guillon

Q: You’ve carried CubeSats on a couple of flights of Vega. Are there any more CubeSats in your backlog?

A: We are considering CubeSats either for the next Soyuz or Vega launches. On the next Sentinel, it will be a multi-payload mission with Soyuz. I’m not sure we will have a true CubeSat because it could have one Sentinel, one auxiliary payload, a third and possibly fourth small satellite. I think both the third and fourth will be a bit heavier than 3 kilograms. To be very specific, I don’t think we have any true CubeSats in our backlog at this moment, but we are discussing with customers ready to fly CubeSats on Soyuz and Vega.

Q: The Sentinel 1B satellite is on the VS14 mission?
A: Yes, it’s VS14, it’s the next Soyuz after the Galileo launch on December 17.

Q: Have you identified other payloads for that mission?
A: Yes, there are some candidates. We are working on that, but we think at the end of the day we will have one principal payload with Sentinel, one auxiliary payload and one or two additional small payloads.

Q: What is the next Vega launch after LISA Pathfinder?
A: It should be Google/Skybox and PeruSat in July 2016.

Q: How many Vega launches next year?
A: The realistic answer is two launches: Google/Skybox with PeruSat and Gokturk. Things could evolve, but today the most realistic assumption is two flights.

Q: You mentioned you have sold all but one of the 10 Vegas Arianespace ordered from (Vega contractor) ELV. Are you close to placing an order for more Vega launchers from ELV?
A: We’re now considering a second exploitation batch, and we have to take into account Vega-C. This is a topic for 2016 with ELV, Avio and ESA, how we are going to get organized for the second exploitation batch and Vega-C. I cannot tell you if we are going to buy a new batch as soon as next year, but we must begin to work very seriously on that.

Credit: ESA
Credit: ESA

Q: The Vega-C is still on track for a first launch in 2018?
A: Yes, Vega-C in 2018, then Ariane 6 in 2020. We know it is ambitious but we have no indication that this will not be the case. The schedule is really the target for the entire launcher community in Europe. You know that Vega-C and Ariane 6 will employ the same P120 solid booster developed with the P120 under the responsibility of Avio/ELV. The whole system for Ariane 6 is under the responsibility of Airbus Safran Launchers, and the whole system of Vega-C is under the responsibility of Avio/ELV. It is very clear that the target is ’18 and ’20, and today we do not see any deviation from this target.

Q: Do you expect to do a demonstration flight for the first launches of each Vega-C and Ariane 6?
A: We do not have a customer for these flights, This is something we should work on. Eutelsat has said that they would like to be the first customer of Ariane 6, so I know that there are customers who would be interested by having a reduced price for the maiden flight. We have time to decide, but this is typically the kind of things we must clarify in the overall business case of the two launchers.

Q: In your next batch of Vegas, will you order all Vega-Cs or a mixture of Vega-Cs and the current Vega configuration?

A: It should be a mix of them. We must see about the market assumptions with Avio/ELV.

Q: You have two Ariane 5 launches to begin 2016, both with single passengers for Intelsat and Eutelsat. Was it difficult finding co-passengers for those two satellites? Why launch a single payload, versus your normal dual-payload missions?

A: It’s a matter of fact that we had two customers who did not want to suffer any delays — Intelsat and Eutelsat. Intelsat because having their Epic satellite in orbit as soon as possible is very important for their business case and for their customers. Eutelsat wanted to be launched before the Olympics. From time to time, customers do not place the same level of priority on schedule, but for them, it was a top priority to be launched as early as possible. We have been fully transparent with them. I want to highlight that because it’s not so common in our business. I think it is a comparative advantage when you come to Arianespace, you have transparency.

We have told customers that even though we have managed to rebalance our order book between small and big satellites — an effort that we’ve successfully made over the last two years — we could have a near term discrepancy between the availability of the big and the availability of the small. Some big satellites being available right at the beginning of the year, and other smaller ones more at the end of the first half of 2016. We explained the situation very clearly to our customers at the beginning of 2015. We have kept the conversation going with our customers, and we sketched out different scenarios. At the end of the day, they both decided to go for this single-launch solution on Ariane 5. The launch opportunities were available in early 2016 and we were able to accommodate their satellites.
Last but not least, in our contractual relationship with our prime — Airbus Safran Launchers — it was a way to secure the Ariane 5 launch cadence in 2016 and to avoid some extra costs that would have been incurred if we had begun Ariane 5 launches later on.

File photo of an Ariane 5 launch. Credit: ESA/CNES/Arianespace – Photo Optique Video du CSG – JM Guillon
File photo of an Ariane 5 launch. Credit: ESA/CNES/Arianespace – Photo Optique Video du CSG – JM Guillon

Q: How many Ariane 5 launches next year?

A: It’s a bit too early to say, but reasonably we could target seven Ariane 5s. This will have to be confirmed at the beginning of the year. I say that now with a certain level of caution because we are still working on the manifest, but having two Ariane 5s at the beginning of the year, one in January and February, it should be possible to go for seven launches. And, maybe, even one more! We’ll see in the coming months what is achievable.

Q: You said two Vega missions next year. How many for Soyuz?

A: It’s too early to say. We need to work on that. We will be more precise in January. It’s too premature to give numbers for the total number of launches, but we could do more Ariane 5s next year than this year.

Q: Will one of the Ariane 5s next year be for Galileo, with four satellites?

A: Yes, definitely, as soon as possible. We have always said that the first Ariane 5 for Galileo would be in the second half of 2016. This is the scenario today, and we are in good shape. We encouraged our customer to launch all the Galileo on Soyuz this year because we knew that, unfortunately, the qualification of the satellites for the Ariane 5 environment would take time. We had a very fruitful discussion with them on that topic. It’s another example with ESA and the European Commission, saying we think that the best scenario is to use Soyuz as much as possible in 2015, and then to have Ariane 5 ready as early as possible in 2016. It’s another example of full transparency from Arianespace.

The Ariane 5 rocket typically carries two telecommunications satellite into geostationary transfer orbit on each mission. Credit: ESA/CNES/Arianespace – Photo Optique Video du CSG – G. Barbaste
The Ariane 5 rocket typically carries two telecommunications satellite into geostationary transfer orbit on each mission. Credit: ESA/CNES/Arianespace – Photo Optique Video du CSG – G. Barbaste

Q: With the recent Azercosmos (Azerspace-2/Intelsat 38) signature, how many GEO contracts does that give you this year?

A: To date we have signed 14 GEO contracts, so it has been a very good year. We still could have another announcement by the end of the year. We will disclose in early January just how many satellites we have captured for Ariane 5 in 2015.

Q: How do you see the GEO satellite market performance this year compared to 2014?

A: There has been fewer GEO satellite contracts awarded to manufacturers as opposed to last year. I do not have the exact figure, but it is clear the number of GEO satellites is less than what was expected in early 2015. In terms of launch contracts, I’m not sure that it is less than last year because we have some contracts given to the satellite manufacturers last year, which have been given to launchers this year. It depends on how you count them, but I am confident we will have achieved our objective this year to be above a 50 percent share of the open market regarding GEO satellites. It’s a bit too early to say how many satellites we have captured for Ariane 5, but I can say that it will be a very good year for Ariane.

We also captured the record breaking OneWeb contract to orbit 672 satellites with 21 launches on Soyuz. We have just closed a deal with O3b for one more launch of four satellites, plus an option. We have added three contracts for Vega — two FalconEye satellites, PeruSat and Skybox — so when you add up all these contracts, we can say from a commercial standpoint that 2015 will be a record year for Arianespace in terms of our order book with over $2 billion in new orders.

Q: So you expect more than 50 percent market share for GEO this year, whereas last year it was more balanced?
A: Yes, definitely. Last year was very balanced between Arianespace and SpaceX. If you consider what was available on the open market, we should be above 50 percent for new contracts. It’s a little premature.

Remember, you also have one contract for Proton from Hispasat and Atlas 5 with EchoStar. And MHI (H-2A) conducted their first commercial GEO launch in 2015. It’s important to say that because our customers have always said they want to have a choice between at least three launchers.

File photo of SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket at Cape Canaveral. Credit: SpaceX
File photo of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket at Cape Canaveral. Credit: SpaceX

Q: Will you be following SpaceX’s return to flight very closely?
A: Yes, I wish them the best for their return to flight. The business of launching is difficult. Launching can be tricky. There was a former CEO of Arianespace and CNES — Frédéric d’Allest — a very impressive guy, who always said that in our business, it is a business where failure and success are the closest. One little thing can make a difference and change the outcome of the mission. Because one single parameter can make the situation totally different. We must be modest and always vigilant.

In Arianespace, we have had the privilege to have 69 successes in a row for Ariane 5. We have six successes in six flights since the inception of Vega. We have more one launch before the end of the year, so it’s not the moment to be arrogant. For Soyuz, we have delivered 38 missions — 26 from Baikonur and 12 from French Guiana — with one upperstage anomaly in August 2014. So the track record is impressive. It’s not by chance. It is the result of a high level of quality, definitely. It’s not done just like that. It comes from something real. Our competitors have faced some difficulties. Proton has had a failure this year, and SpaceX has had a failure. So we’ll see how they are going both to overcome this situation in the long run.

Our main competitor has a huge backlog to deliver in the coming two years. What will not be easy on their side will be to do three things at the same time: keep innovating; launch as often as possible; and not fail. This is their challenge. We have our own challenges obviously. I do not want to be polemic because we belong to the same space community, and I think competition should never exclude some kind of cooperation for the benefits of the whole space industry and our customers. For instance, I remind you that we have a cooperative agreement with MHI, which is also a competitor. But to make a cold analysis, it will be a challenge for our main competitor to be in a position to deliver on time, to innovate and not to fail.

Our situation at Arianespace is different. We prefer not to innovate too much when we make each launch. We prefer to be in the most stable configuration — we call it the “explored domain” — as possible because the more you change, the more you take risks. SpaceX has a different roadmap. I respect this roadmap, but we do not have the same roadmap, and by the way we do not have access to the same markets, Arianespace being not eligible to the American governmental launches . We will seek to strongly innovate with Ariane 6. With Ariane 5 we try not to change the launcher during each mission because the more we repeat the same story, the more we have a chance to be successful. So the philosophy is not the same, and the customer has a choice.

Q: Did you happen to see the Blue Origin rocket landing?
A: Yes, and I congratulate Jeff Bezos and Blue Origin on this successful flight. It shows that the future is more open than expected. A lot of advertisement has been made around reusability under one single player. Now we see that Jeff Bezos has some ambitions as well. The level of maturity is not the same. He has made it to 100 kilometers, plus a little bit more, and New Shepard has accelerated to around Mach 3. But it shows there are many ambitions, and for me it is a way to be always more ambitious. We have ambitions in Europe with Ariane 6, and I think it is exactly the product we need for the coming market, a market which will be characterized more by diversity in the volume and the mass of the payloads. With a more competitive launcher in terms of price, Ariane 6 will help us to be able to go with two small or two medium satellites — and not like today with only one small and one big — without losing money.

I think our rocket is fully adapted to the expected market, but we could have other ambitions. We know that Airbus Safran Launchers is working on Adeline, which is a fly-back reusable stage. On my side, I have raised the point that maybe in a market where we have a lot of small nanosats, a dedicated launcher could be a good idea for these constellations. But it must not compete with our existing launchers. Among the successes we have achieved at Arianespace, we have not introduced competition between members of the family. There is a segment for Ariane, there is a segment for Soyuz, and there is a segment for Vega. The overlap is very limited. It’s important because we have the trust of our three primes — Airbus Safran Launchers, Avio/ELV and Roscosmos — because they know that we do all we can to maximize the reach of each launcher. If in the future — nothing is really on its way yet — but if in the future we have a very competitive micro-launcher, it should not compete with our other launchers.

Q: How close is a micro-launcher to being a reality for Arianespace?
A: When I speak about that, it is for two reasons. I see that there is a strong demand. When you go to Silicon Valley, you see many players who are working on small nanosats. Secondly, it’s also a way to say to our community that reusability is interesting, but there are other ideas. Innovation will not be only about reusability. It could be also with very small and cost-effective launchers being able to be launched many times at very, very low prices. I’m speaking about a few million dollars per launch.

There seems to be a demand, and I’m sure that in terms of innovation, a micro-launcher could be as innovative as reusability. To be honest, we have not begun to work with industry on that. The top priority, and the right priority, is Vega-C in 2018 and Ariane 6 in 2020. I do not want to introduce confusion here. I will just say that when we speak about the long term, it could be on the road map. But today, it is just an idea I put on the table.

Artist's concept of the Ariane 6 rocket in its Ariane 64 configuration. Credit: ESA-David Ducros, 2015
Artist’s concept of the Ariane 6 rocket in its Ariane 64 configuration. Credit: ESA-David Ducros, 2015

Q: You say you don’t want to introduce innovation launch to launch, but only at certain strategic points. What innovation does Ariane 6 offer?
A: I think there will be a strong technical innovation with the Vinci engine. It will be a restartable cryogenic upper stage, and it will optimize orbit injections and expand the kinds of missions we can do. In terms of technology, this will be one big innovation. The second advantage for the customer is the ambitious price target. When it comes to Ariane 64, we are at around $90 to $100 million, as opposed to Ariane 5, which is in terms of cost, around $200 million. You see with the effort we’re making, we want to reduce the cost around 40/50 percent, which is very ambitious. For the customer, that means cheaper launches. Regarding our dual launch strategy, we will stick to this approach which benefits our customers with lower prices. Given the flexibility of Ariane 6, we will not need, as we do today, to go for one big and one small satellite. We could offer a rocket for two small satellites or two medium satellites at a competitive price. It will maximize the opportunities in the framework of dual-launch and minimize any risk of delays because if we have two small, we go. If we have one small and one big, we go. If we have one small and one medium, we go.

So a restartable upper stage, at least the same performance as Ariane 5 ECA at a cheaper price, so diminishing the price per kilo to orbit, and in terms of industrial process, we see two big advantages. The same P-120 solid boosters for Ariane 6 and for Vega C will increase the economies of scale in production as well as the commonality between the two launchers, and with a more modular approach. We will have a choice between two or four solid boosters (Ariane 62 or 64), which will be a way to increase the flexibility and launch cadence of Ariane 6. We are speaking about up to 11 Ariane 6s per year as opposed to six or seven Ariane 5s per year. Launching more and manufacturing more will reduce the unit cost of the system. The system is designed to have more commonality between the launchers, more modularity in Ariane 6, and more flexibility in the dual-launch we are going to deliver.

Q: You still expect to retire Ariane 5 around 2023?
A: In 2023, yes, that is the nominal scenario, which would be three years (of overlap) as opposed to seven years between Ariane 4 and Ariane 5. It is ambitious, but I think it’s important to be ambitious in this business, so Ariane 5 could be retired in 2023.

Q: Do you expect to place more Ariane 5 orders from Airbus Safran Launchers to cover your needs up to 2023?
A: Yes, there will be a last batch of Ariane 5s. We ordered 18 in December 2013. We must make a sound decision on how many we are going to order next. Transition phases are always challenging, and we are going to work a lot on that.

Q: Is that negotiation going on right now?
A: It has not started yet. Next year we have the program implementation review for Vega-C and Ariane 6. Contracts have been signed between industry and ESA in August 2015. There will be a program implementation review for these two programs next year between ESA and industry, and then after the program implementation review it will be one more and final confirmation of these programs. Regarding Arianespace, I think it will be time after the program implementation review to speak about a new batch of Ariane 5s. I don’t think we need to sign it next year, I think it will be in 2017.

Q: When is that review?
A: Mid-year. Then after that, there is the next ministerial.

Q: A few questions on Soyuz. When was your last Soyuz order?
A: We ordered seven Soyuz in March 2014. After that, we placed a huge contract in 2015 for 21 more Soyuz for OneWeb with Roscosmos.

Q: Is that signed?
A: Yes, we have agreed on this contract.

Q: That’s for 21 for OneWeb?
A: Yes, plus some options both for Soyuz and Ariane 6.

Q: How many of those will launch from French Guiana, as opposed to Baikonur?
A: It will be a mix. The majority of them will be delivered from Baikonur, and Russian cosmodromes. It could be Plesetsk or Vostochny. A minority will be delivered from the European spaceport in French Guiana. Why a minority? We need to have the spaceport available for European missions, such as Galileo, and French optical satellites. We didn’t want to overwhelm the European spaceport with OneWeb. OneWeb, for its part, wanted to have a choice between multiple launch pads. For them, one of the key reasons to come to Soyuz was the fact that we have multiple launch pads, which gives them as much flexibility as possible to orbit their constellation quickly. They know that if necessary, they can play on four launch pads: CSG, Baikonur, Plesetsk and Vostochny. That is a huge asset. They know that the Russian industry can ramp up very quickly to fabricate more Soyuz, so they were fully convinced that we were the most secure solution to launch their constellation as fast as possible. They would like to have 21 launches from 2018 into 2019. It’s ambitious, but we have been in a position to demonstrate to them that due to this production capacity and launch pad capacity, we were the best solution.

Virgin Galactic will be part of the game with their LauncherOne. They will make a lot of launches as well, but for a more limited number of payloads. We are very happy to team with Virgin Galactic here. We have had a working session in late August in Mojave, at their headquarters, and we are very happy and excited with this collaboration on OneWeb. OneWeb is making the link between us, but we are committed to delivering for the same project in a fully complementary way.

File photo of a Soyuz rocket launch from French Guiana in 2012. The Russian rocket has flown 12 times from the jungle spaceport, with a 13th mission scheduled Thursday. Credit: ESA-S. Corvaja
File photo of a Soyuz rocket launch from French Guiana in 2012. The Russian rocket has flown 12 times from the jungle spaceport, with a 13th mission scheduled Thursday. Credit: ESA-S. Corvaja

Q: The seven Soyuz you ordered in March 2014 — how many of those are sold?
A: We can say that least two are already sold including the O3b contract we have just announced, but we are expecting other contracts very soon. We are confident that most of them will be sold. By the end of next year, we will have sold the majority of them, I believe.

Q: Do you see a role for Soyuz within Arianespace in the 2020s?
A: Our situation is very clear. Once we have Ariane 6 and Vega C, it is logical to put the European institutional payloads on Ariane 6 and Vega-C. This is the nominal scenario, but we do not know what the market will be. What is interesting is that the same year we made this huge progress on Ariane 6, we have had this huge contract for Soyuz with OneWeb. It just shows that the future is not written in stone. Three things are clear. The collaboration between Arianespace and Roscosmos is successful. It’s based on mutual trust. Second, we have a launch pad here for Soyuz in addition to Starsem in Baikonur, and third, European institutional payloads at the end of the day will be launched by Ariane 6 and Vega-C.

But I am confident we could have other opportunities for Soyuz in French Guiana. This is what we have seen with OneWeb. Soyuz is one asset which may not be used for European institutional payloads but could be helpful for launch commercial constellations in the next decade, in complement to Ariane 6 and Vega-C

Q: Arianespace recently inaugurated the FCube for fueling of the Soyuz rocket’s Fregat upper stage, freeing up other facilities at the spaceport for customer payloads. Are there any more projects planned other than the Ariane 6 facility now under construction?

A: No, the FCube has already helped us to optimize our manifest and to be in a position to deliver 12 launches. It would have been much more difficult without the FCube. It was one of the achievements of the year. We wanted to have it at the middle of the year, and that was done. We do not expect any need for new facilities for the current family. The priority assigned to CNES is definitely in preparation for the new Ariane 6 facilities.

Q: Another big launch you have coming up is JWST.
A: We have Alvaro Gimenez, the Director of Science at ESA, here today. We have been in discussions with ESA and are close to reaching an agreement for the final contract. It will be the most extraordinary science mission ever performed — looking at the very origins of the universe. We are honored to have the trust of NASA and ESA in Ariane 5. In light of U.S.-European cooperation across several areas in the space domain, we repeat that Ariane 5 is fully available for American institutional missions. With James Webb, in the context of cooperation, we will have a great responsibility, and we say to our American friends that we are available to do more if they want to go in this direction to minimize risks and reduce costs.

Q: Are there any special activities required for James Webb to be prepared for launch here? Any changes to any facilities?
A: We have the facilities ready. I know that we will have a lot of work to prepare the satellite. It is a huge event, a huge honor for Arianespace to have been entrusted with the launch of JWST. I’m sure that there will be a lot of media attention surrounding that mission, and we will begin to tell that story soon.

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Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.