#Q&A with Alain Charmeau, CEO of Airbus Safran Launchers

Alain Charmeau (left), CEO of Airbus Safran Launchers, and Gaele Winters (right), the European Space Agency's director of launchers, signed the development contract for the Ariane 6 rocket in August 2015. Credit: ESA–N. Imbert-Vier, 2015
Alain Charmeau (left), CEO of Airbus Safran Launchers, and Gaele Winters (right), the European Space Agency’s director of launchers, signed the development contract for the Ariane 6 rocket in August 2015. Credit: ESA–N. Imbert-Vier, 2015

Alain Charmeau took charge of Airbus Safran Launchers when it formed in 2015 from the merger of Airbus and Safran’s rocket divisions, and his first major task is to spearhead development of Europe’s new Ariane 6 rocket set for a debut launch in 2020.

The Ariane 6 will replace Europe’s Ariane 5 booster, cutting launch costs in half and flying twice as often as the current rocket. Airbus Safran Launchers is lead contractor for the Ariane rocket family, overseeing a pan-European supply chain and taking principal ownership of Arianespace, the French company responsible for launching and selling Ariane boosters.

Airbus Safran Launchers engineers build up the Ariane 5 rocket inside an integration hangar at its French Guiana launch base, then hands the vehicle over to Arianespace for final flight preps.

Headquartered in Paris, the company formed to take over Ariane development and manufacturing, which was previously led by Airbus Defense and Space and Safran, builder of the rocket’s engines. Airbus Safran Launchers also now holds the key to the Ariane rocket’s design, taking over that function from CNES, the French space agency.

The reason for the company’s existence was to streamline production on the existing Ariane rocket line, and introduce a leaner, more market-focused effort to develop the next-generation Ariane 6. The end result, officials say, will be a more inexpensive launch service for customers, including commercial satellite operators and European institutions and governments, such as the European Space Agency.

European space officials say the start-up of Airbus Safran Launchers on January 2015, coupled with the debut of the new Ariane 6 rocket, will make European launch services more competitive with newcomers to the industry, such as SpaceX.

The Ariane 6 will come in two varieties — the Ariane 62 with two solid rocket boosters and the Ariane 64 with four strap-on motors — and will be able to launch satellites into low Earth orbit, geostationary transfer orbit, or a range of other orbits, plus Earth escape trajectories.

Like the Ariane 5, the Ariane 64 configuration can launch two large telecommunications satellites to geostationary transfer orbit in one mission, but at half the cost of current Ariane flights, and comparable to prices now offered by SpaceX.

But SpaceX is attempting to introduce reuse to its Falcon rocket family. If the reuse plan proves reliable and economical, Falcon 9 prices will surely drop. While the lion’s share of the company’s focus is on Ariane 6, Airbus Safran Launchers is also working on a fly-back booster concept called Adeline and a reusable engine called Prometheus fueled by liquid oxygen and liquified natural gas.

The initial Ariane 6 version will be powered by a Vulcain 2 engine similar to the core stage powerplant flying on the Ariane 5, two or four solid rocket motors derived from Europe’s Vega booster, and a new restartable Vinci upper stage engine to replace the Ariane 5’s single-burn HM7B second stage.

Charmeau, 60, was head of space system operations at Airbus Defense and Space before his nomination to become chief executive of Airbus Safran Launchers in 2014. Before taking the post as space operations chief, he was head of space transportation at EADS Astrium, a forerunner of Airbus Defense and Space, where he was responsible for programs such as the Ariane 5 and Europe’s contribution to the International Space Station, including the Columbus lab module and the Automated Transfer Vehicle.

He is a graduate of the Arts et Métiers Engineering School, and has a Master of Science from Caltech.

Charmeau spoke with Spaceflight Now’s Stephen Clark in July about Airbus Safran Launchers’ work on the Ariane 6, and the company’s research and development initiative into rocket reusability.

Artist's illustration of the Ariane 64 rocket version, with four solid rocket boosters. Credit: ESA–David Ducros, 2016
Artist’s illustration of the Ariane 64 rocket version, with four solid rocket boosters. Credit: ESA–David Ducros, 2016

Q: How confident are you in the schedule for the first Ariane 6 launch in 2020?

A: “We are extremely confident with regard to this schedule for the maiden flight of Ariane 6, for the good reason that the most challenging part of a launcher is the engines. We’re using liquid engines, and in this area we are using engines which either exist on Ariane 5 — of course, we will adapt the Vulcain engine — and an engine which has been under development for a lot of years. This is the upper stage engine, which is Vinci. This is why we are extremely confident. We did not start this launcher from scratch but from either existing hardware or an engine which has been under development, and which is almost qualified now.”

Q: What might threaten the 2020 schedule?

A: “Nothing in particular. As a matter of fact ,we want to go directly into production for Ariane 6, and I would say the development is not really the most worrying part of it, but we want to really pay attention to how to set up the production, and how to ramp up the production as quickly as possible.”

Q: What was the Maturity Gate 5 achieved earlier this spring?

A: “It is what is called sometimes in space programs a preliminary design review, where we have reviewed the status of the configuration of the launcher and the design of the launcher, the development plan with the major milestones, as well as, of course, performance and the budget. This went extremely well, very smoothly. We had a panel of reviewers coming from outside of our company. It’s part of the normal work and the result is extremely positive, and this is why I am saying we do not anticipate difficulties for the maiden flight in 2020.”

Q: What is the significance of the completion of the merger between Airbus and Safran, and with the Airbus Safran Launchers company fully operational?

A: “If I may, I’ll start two years ago, when the two CEOs of Safran and Airbus Group decided to merge their activities in the domain of launchers. In order to move extremely quickly, we decided to create the company in January 2015, but with a limited scope of activity in the company and — between brackets I would say — limited in scope. The company was managing the launcher programs — Ariane 5 and Ariane 6 — without having the industrial assets on-board. Now the company has been extended with all industrial assets. I mean engineering offices, factories, support functions, and even communications. The company is a fully French-German company of 8,400 people with industrial sites in Germany and France. That’s why we are speaking about this final parameter of the company.”

Q: What is the upcoming program implementation review with ESA?

A: “This review has started. It is not at all a technical review. It will have, as an input, the result of our industrial review, but ESA is coordinating the interests of several member states — something like 12 or 13 member states who are involved in launchers — and they want to review the situation of the program, the budgetary aspects from the member states, schedule aspects, consistency between the launcher development and the infrastructure of the launch base. They want to check with expectations from governmental customers, as well as commercial customers, and so on and so forth. It’s a very short program review, not to put too much emphasis on this. It will last for something like two weeks, and then they will decide to go further until the end of the development program for Ariane 6.”

Q: So this review should conclude this month?

A: “Yes, some time by the end of this month, and then there is a formal process within ESA which will lead to a final decision in the middle of September, which is extremely short. The process in ESA is quite quick. They will finalize the review at the end of July and take a final decision in the middle of September.”

Artist's concept of a Vinci engine, featuring an extendable nozzle, on the Ariane 6 upper stage. Credit: Safran
Artist’s concept of a Vinci engine, featuring an extendable nozzle, on the Ariane 6 upper stage. Credit: Safran

Q: What would you say are the major innovations to be introduced with Ariane 6? I know it’s an evolutionary launcher in terms of the engine and boosters, but what is new about the launcher that will make it attractive and competitive?

A: “First of all, we have an innovative engine for the upper stage. The Vinci engine will give us a re-ignitable upper stage, which does not exist on Ariane 5 today, so for us it is a major innovation — a major improvement — on Ariane 6. The Vinci is an engine that is already in development, but it will be new engine for Ariane. It will be a major innovation because this will provide Ariane 6 with the capability to launch constellations of satellites — several types of constellations — for navigation, Earth observation or telecommunications. This is really key. I would say the second biggest innovation on Ariane 6 is the way we develop Ariane 6 in terms of developing a launcher in order to target a very competitive production cost. In terms of design, we have a lot of strong innovation in the design, and I would say in the equipment or parts of the launcher for different stages, and, of course, we have some technical innovations. We are going to use what we call pyro-laser equipment. We are going to use 3D printing in production processes. These are some of the innovations.”

Q: What is pyro-laser?

A: “As usual with innovations, sometimes it’s complex. This is a technical world. We will replace pyrotechnics by some laser ignition systems.”

Q: That will be used for things like separation events?

A: “Yes, absolutely.”

Q: Where will you introduce 3D printing?

A: “Everywhere we can do it. This is, for example, an innovation in the way to design Ariane 6 because our motto is to justify why we cannot use 3D printing. This is the reverse of the approach of saying where can we do 3D printing. The approach on Ariane 6 is when we design it, we’re asking why we cannot use 3D printing. Obviously, we cannot do it for big structures, when we have structures of 5-meter diameter. We cannot do 3D printing (there) because the machines are not available, but for any piece of the launcher which fits with the size of the machines for 3D printing, we will do it.”

Q: Do you have a few examples?

A: “For example, in the engines. A lot of parts of the engines, some valves, some mechanical brackets and supports, will be done in 3D printing. A lot of pieces will be done that way.”

Q: Why did you decide to go with horizontal integration? That’s a change from previous Ariane rockets.

A: “It was a tradeoff which we have developed together with CNES, the French space agency in charge of infrastructure in Kourou. It’s a good example of what I was saying where we have asked our designers to really think abou the best solution in order to reduce the production costs, the exploitation costs, and the operational costs. This is the result of that analysis. We have taken an end-to-end approach for the production of the tanks down to the integration of the launcher with the payload on the launch pad. We have analyzed completely the process including the logistics, including the time to operate all actions on the launcher, and the result of the tradeoff is that it was cheaper to do it horizontally than vertically. It’s as simple as that. It was not done in Ariane 5, so for us it is something new, and we are going to drastically reduce the integration cycle and integration costs for Ariane 6 compared to Ariane 5.”

Q: Will the payloads be integrated vertically?

A: “Everything will be done horizontally apart from the payload integration. When we will have one or two satellits, we will integrate the payload and close the upper part of the launcher with the payload and the fairing together (vertically) because we know our customers like to do it this way. We respect the request from the customers, of course. But all the rest will be done horizontally up to the time it goes to the launch pad, where it will be (erected vertical) in the right way for the launch.”

This illustration shows the two Ariane 6 versions, with two and four solid rocket boosters, sized for low-altitude orbits and geostationary destinations. Credit: Airbus Safran Launchers
This illustration shows the two Ariane 6 versions, with two and four solid rocket boosters, sized for low-altitude orbits and geostationary destinations. Credit: Airbus Safran Launchers

Q: How competitive will Ariane 6 be with launch services from SpaceX, or from the other new vehicles in the 2020s like Angara, Vulcan and H3?

A: “We have to be. We will be competitive. We will use an Ariane 6 with competitive technologies, such as solid propulsion and cryogenic propulsion, which are more efficient than other ones. We will have a big launcher, Ariane 64, which will allow for dual-launch of two big satellites, which is also a way to reduce the cost per customer, of course, and we are convinced we will be competitive. Indeed, in our first discussions with prospective customers from the governmental side, as well as the commercial side, they are highly interested, to say the least, with what we have presented to them up to now. It’s better for the customers to say we will be competitive than for ourselves. And this is what they are saying today. I do not know the position of our competitors, but I know our customers, and our future customers.”

Q: Is the Adeline concept developed by Airbus now under your responsibility within Airbus Safran Launchers?

A: “Yes, it is.”

Q: Can you talk about how that’s going? How much work is being done on that project? Is it something that you’re planning to introduce on Ariane 6 at some point?

A: “For the moment, it has been an R&D project based on company funding. This is why we don’t want to say much about it. We are convinced that it could be a competitive concept, but for the moment our priority is Ariane 6 because we believe and hear our customers believe, Ariane 6 will be competitive. Then we have two (projects) for the future. One is to develop a new liquid engine, a big engine, in order to drastically cut down the cost of this engine compared to today, and the other concept is how to use the Adeline design in order to make a reusable launcher maybe one day. Whether it will be an evolution of Ariane 6 or a new launcher, like Ariane 7, we cannot say today. But, of course, these are the two (paths), and the first is certainly to have this new propulsion technology in order to cut down the costs first. We believe what the customers are expecting is not a reused launcher. I am convinced they would prefer to buy a new launcher than a second-hand launcher, but they want to reduce the cost. We are working intensely on cost reduction. Of course, the cheaper you are the less interesting reusability becomes because we know there are costs in order to recover and reuse a launcher. But if a launcher is very cheap, it’s more competitive to have an expendable launcher than a reusable one.”

Q: Can you go into a little more detail on the new propulsion technology, the new engine? What propellants will it burn?

A: “It will be with methane, or liquid natural gas. This will be new. It’s more efficient than kerosene, and again we are going to work on a design trying to cut down the production cost. It has started several months ago, in parallel with Ariane 6.”

Q: Can you talk about this new engine’s performance?

A: “Not so much for the moment because we are cautious, and we prefer to speak when are sure of what we announce. That’s why sometimes we don’t speak a lot. It’s European culture, I would say. But certainly this engine could very well fit with the first stage of Ariane 6 one day.”

Diagram of the Adeline concept of operations. Credit: Airbus Defense and Space
Diagram of the Adeline concept of operations. Credit: Airbus Defense and Space

Q: So it’s roughly in the same class as Vulcain 2?

A: “Yes.”

Q: Does it have a name?

A: Prometheus.”

Q: I have a few questions on Ariane 5. Do you still expect to sell more Ariane 5s to Arianespace around the end of the year?

A: “We are well advanced in this process, but it is not so much Arianespace who decides. It is a market which is going to decide if and when we need to launch with this new batch of Ariane 5, or continue with the existing production batch.”

Q: Last month, Ariane 5 launched its heaviest commercial payload ever. Do you have anything else up your sleeve to increase Ariane 5’s performance over the coming years?

A: “We are speaking strictly about GTO commercial mass because, of course, Ariane 5 has already been able to launch more than 20 tonnes to a low orbit, so we’re speaking about a GTO kind of commercial payload. Yes, we have still some ideas in order to improve the situation because we will continue to improve Ariane 5 in terms of its cost-performance ratio in order to improve both, by reducing the cost and also continuing to improve the payload performance.”

Q: How long will Ariane 5 continue flying?

A: “We will have an on-ramp, or transition, phase between 2020 and 2022, and our target is that by 2023 we have only Ariane 6 flying. This is a transition period with one Ariane 6 in 2020, and six or seven Ariane 5s, to the end of the transition, where we will have no more Ariane 5s in 2023.”

Q: Stephane Israel from Arianespace has touched on his interest in a new small launcher, smaller than Vega. Is that something Airbus Safran Launchers is studying, to have a dedicated small satellite launcher in the few hundred kilogram performance range?

A: “We know there is a potential market for that. We have some customers which came to us saying they would appreciate having a solution, so we are looking at some options in this domain of small launchers, much smaller than Vega. We cannot do everything at the same time, but it’s obviously something in the air, which is of interest in the future, so, of course, we’re looking at it.”

Q: Would you say Ariane 6’s design is frozen at this point? What’s the big milestone coming up next?

A: “The design configuration is frozen, and 12 months from now, we will have started the production of some parts of the launcher, at least for ground testing before we will do more complex subsystems to be integrated and tested on the ground. For us, the biggest milestone a year from now will be to start the production.”

Q: Will production of the first stage remain at Les Mureaux, the site of Ariane 5 core production?

A: “The production will be all over Europe, of course, but the integration line of the first stage will be at Les Mureaux.”

from Spaceflight Now ift.tt/2aw0YP5

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