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One-on-one with the chief executive of Arianespace

Posted: March 19, 2014

Stéphane Israël took over as chief executive of Arianespace last year at a time of change for the 34-year-old French launch service provider, which faces fresh challenges from competitors and an evolving commercial satellite market while maintaining an unprecedented cadence of launches from Europe's spaceport in French Guiana.

Stéphane Israël has held the top job at Arianespace since April 2013. Photo credit: Arianespace
Since its founding in 1980, Arianespace has raced to the pinnacle of the global launch services market, winning contracts with customers from six continents, launching spacecraft for established and startup companies, and serving European institutional missions to explore the universe, monitor Earth's environment and resupply the International Space Station.

Israël said Arianespace would "react" to tough competition from International Launch Services and SpaceX. ILS announced last week a renewed effort to fill its Proton rocket manifest with dual-satellite launches, a paradigm exploited with success by Arianespace with its Ariane 5 ECA launcher over the last decade.

SpaceX achieved two back-to-back successful launches with its upgraded Falcon 9 v1.1 rocket in December and January carrying two telecommunications satellites for SES and Thaicom.

Arianespace plans 12 launches this year from the European-run Guiana Space Center in the northern coast of South America. One flight is already in the books, with 11 missions to go, including the launch of the ASTRA 5B and Amazonas 4A communications satellites aboard an Ariane 5 rocket on Friday.

Four Russian Soyuz rockets, tailored for medium-class missions, are due to launch from French Guiana this year, beginning with the April 3 delivery of the European Union's Sentinel 1A Earth observation satellite to orbit.

The smaller solid-fueled Vega launcher will fly twice in 2014, with the first flight coming in late April with the DZZ-HR high-resolution Earth imaging satellite for the government of Kazakhstan.

If all the launches go as planned, it would be a record year for Arianespace.

Israël, who became chairman and CEO of Arianespace in April 2013, sat down with Spaceflight Now on March 11 to discuss the year's outlook and long-term prospects for the Evry, France-based launch company.

Question: What are your thoughts on your first year at the helm of Arianespace?

Israël: The market is evolving with uncertainties linked to the arrival of electric propulsion, and the extent which it will be a total change or a limited change. Competitors are also evolving, many competitors, and Europe is still considering its future with Ariane 5 ME and Ariane 6. I think it's challenging to arrive in this period of time, but it's also part of the job.

For Arianespace, more specifically, we are now to a certain extent still at the beginning of the exploitation of three launchers because it's only from 2012 onwards that we have operated three launchers. So we see changes for Arianespace with the three launchers, changes in the market with electric propulsion, and changes in the competitive landscape and propulsion for the future. I see many challenges, but behind each challenge there is an opportunity. This is my mindset.

Question: What does your manifest look like over the next few months?

Israël: On the 21st of March, we have Amazonas 4A for Hispasat and ASTRA 5B for SES. We had some delays on this launch because there have been some issues on the Hispasat satellite. Initially, we were considering having another co-passenger, so it has been quite a long time. We know that SES has been patient, and we want to thank them for that.

On April 3, it will be the beginning of the European year in Kourou. It is the first launch we're going to make for the Copernicus program. It will be on April 3 with Sentinel 1A on a Soyuz. In late April -- we target the 25th of April but it may change a little bit -- we have Vega with a satellite for Kazakhstan. I think it is very interesting because, in a one-month period of time, we are going to launch all three launchers. It shows the capacity we have now with a family.

The third stage of the next Vega launcher is stacked at the Guiana Space Center for liftoff as soon as April 25. Photo credit: ESA/CNES/Arianespace - Photo Optique Video du CSG - P. Baudon
With these three launchers, we can address all the market, both institutional and commercial customers. With each launcher, this year we are going to address both institutional and commercial payloads. We are going to make institutional launches on Ariane 5 with the ATV, which will come later on in July. We are making commercial launches on Ariane 5 as well. When you take Soyuz, we will launch both commercial and institutional missions -- commercial with O3b and institutional with Galileo and Copernicus. When you take Vega, we will make both a commercial export launch with Kazakhstan, the one I have mentioned, and we have a mission later on this year for ESA with IXV. It really means that now we have the capacity to cope with all the market, and this is the first year we are going to see the full portfolio of Arianespace's family of launchers.

Question: Have you selected a payload for the next Soyuz after Sentinel 1A?

Israël: This will depend on the availability of the payloads, and we are waiting for some information on the payloads. We will make a final decision by the end of March. We want to launch both payloads as soon as possible. We have a clear willingness to launch Galileo as soon as possible because it is a flagship program, but we need to have the payload available. Regarding O3b, reducing the digital divide is also a top project. It's our second launch for them, and after that there will be a third one, so we are just now waiting to have the full information on the availability of the payloads. We will make a decision to launch both as soon as possible.

Question: The window for the Soyuz would be in June?

Israël: Yes, it would be in June.

Question: Has O3b told you if their satellites will be ready to ship from Italy in time for launch in June?

Israël: Yes, O3b should be ready for shipment at the end of March. We need to make a decision very soon, and we need to make the decision based on the respective availability of the satellites. We must also take into account our contractual commitments for both customers, and then we will make a decision.

Question: ESA director general Jean-Jacques Dordain has said six Galileo satellites will launch this year. Is that possible?

Israël: It is our target if the satellites are available. We would like to be able to launch six Galileo satellites. For that, we have two possibilities: Either we make three Soyuz launches, or we make one Soyuz launch and one Ariane 5 launch because we could also use Ariane 5 ES to launch four Galileo satellites. For that to happen, we need the satellites to be available.

Question: Will the Ariane 5 ES dispenser for Galileo be ready by end of the year?

Israël: Things are going well. The Ariane 5 ES should be ready for launch in December if the satellites are ready. That is our target, and we have no indications so far of any shift. The qualification under the responsibility of ESA is on track. For us, if the satellites are here, we should be in a position to launch four Galileo satellites on Ariane 5 ES in December.

Question: Is that your preference to ease pressure on the Soyuz manifest?

Israël: I have no preference because, at the end of the day, if it's not this year, I will have to make the launches next year. So we have no clear preference. What is important for us is to make as many launches as possible this year. Last year, we suffered from a lack of availability on the satellite side, both on Ariane and on Soyuz. Our target is clearly to launch as much as possible. Our preference is a scenario, which at the end of the year, allows us to make as many launches as possible. I think it's not only in Arianespace's interests, it is in the interests of our customers because the more we launch this year, the more we will deliver and the less we increase the burden for next year. So our preference is a scenario where we can maximize the number of launches.

Question: How many launches are on your manifest this year?

Israël: Our target is to make, on average, one launch per month. We were unable to launch in January because of an anomaly on the launcher, but we hope we will recover in April with two launches in April. It's not done yet. It's a challenge. The first launch we are quite confident will be on April 3 for the Sentinel 1A mission. The third launch of Vega -- it's not sure yet -- but today it's feasible [for launch in April]. Afterward, it will depend on the availability of the satellites, but it is absolutely our target to make up to 12 launches this year.

Question: Just to make sure I have the manifest correct, how many launches are there for each vehicle this year?

Israël: Two for Vega, six or seven for Ariane and four Soyuz. It could go up to 13 launches, but I know that will be a challenge, so I do not want to overcommit. We would like to be in a position to make up to seven Ariane 5s, but I prefer to say my target is one launch per month. If you consider my order book, I can do more than that, but I know that life is complex. The satellites aren't always there. Let's say six or seven Ariane, four Soyuz and two Vega.

Question: Will there be another Ariane 5 after March 21 and before ATV in July?

Israël: We will have Measat 3b and Optus 10, and then we will have ATV. I cannot disclose the exact day of this mission because we need to decide that with our customers, but that is our plan. Measat 3b and Optus 10 in May, Soyuz in June, and ATV in July.

Question: For the Vega at the end of April, you said it could move a bit. Is that an issue with preparing the launcher in time?

Israël: Today, things are OK. The satellite has arrived. For me, it is more linked to the campaign and the launcher if there is a shift, given the qualification and processing and so on, since it is just the third Vega. We are doing all we can to stick to the 25th of April. This is still our target. We will see if it has to move for some days.

NEXT PAGE: Israël discusses Arianespace's strategy to remain competitive

Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.