What Can We Learn from Ariane for Future Space Partnerships? (2024)

Europe’s new space launcher, Ariane 6, the product of work across 13 European nations, is expected to make its inaugural flight on July 9. The rocket’s pedigree stretches back about fifty years to the start of the Ariane project to develop an all-European launch system. Though critics charged that the Ariane project was unnecessary and expensive, it produced the world’s first commercial space launcher, Ariane 1, and a family of rockets that dominated the global commercial launch market for a quarter century.

This success relied on a groundbreaking partnership between over ten countries to build something that European leaders knew no one country in Europe could do alone. Can the Ariane project serve as a blueprint for future partnerships between the United States, Europe, Japan, Australia, South Korea, and others to address shared goals in space? If so, what can we learn from Ariane?

Concerns about being eclipsed by the United States and Soviet Union led European leaders down the path of space collaboration in the 1950s and 1960s. There was a recognition that no single nation in Europe had the resources to compete with the two superpowers in space and that Europe’s future stake in space depended on a willingness to collaborate.

While there were undoubtedly business considerations that shaped the nature of the Ariane project partnerships, the decision was a political one that required government funding and the direct involvement of Europe’s statesmen. The president of France personally made the case for what would become Ariane to the chancellor of Germany in 1973. The success of the Ariane project, as well as the creation of the European Space Agency (ESA) at nearly the same time, hinged on political will.

The Ariane project sought to provide Europe with its own independent launch capability and boost Europe’s space industry, while also building a globally competitive commercial space launch product. With an eye toward the future, because to date there had been no significant market for commercial launches, Ariane developed a rocket optimized for launching commercial satellites into geosynchronous orbit. For over 20 years, Ariane rockets dominated commercial launch—by 2004, Arianespace had 50 percent of the global market for commercial launches.

The main lesson from the Ariane project is that there are times when national economic and security interests are best met through international cooperation. And the point of a project like Ariane, and future international space collaboration, is to do things that no one country could do alone—to tackle the hardest space challenges. Today, shared challenges include creating a navigation and timing system designed for the Moon, initiatives focused on space sustainability, or on-orbit systems protecting satellites from counterspace threats.

Today, many leaders on both sides of the Atlantic, as well as across the Pacific, call for closer allied collaboration in space both to preserve security and maintain economic competitiveness in the face of a rising China. Though the geopolitical reasons are different, the same reasoning—that pooled resources and expertise can produce better results than going it alone—shapes today’s discussions just like during the 1960s and 1970s as Europe coalesced around a united approach to space launch. But joint statements alone are not enough to jump-start the flywheel of collaboration at the needed scale.

A significant barrier to more international space partnerships is the government’s tendency in many allied countries, including the United States, Europe, and Japan, to prefer domestic options over international ones. Since space products and services are so closely tied to government funding and procurements, government rules or biases that favor domestic suppliers discourage international cross-pollination. Changing those preferences risks upsetting the business model for companies that build space systems, which may see initiatives that aim to fold foreign companies into the mix as disruptive to their revenue streams.

Beyond domestic procurement preferences, other national policies distort any natural tendencies of U.S. companies to collaborate with companies from other countries on space technologies. For example, U.S. export control and rocket technology rules discourage cooperation between U.S. companies and allied partners. There is simply too much paperwork and uncertainty—businesses often cannot justify the risks inherent to international partnership on space systems. Fortunately, the U.S. government is reviewing space technology export controls.

The Ariane project was set up to accommodate nations’ preferences for supporting their domestic firms, while combining resources for a European-wide effort. Through ESA, Ariane partner nations pooled funds and assigned one organization, the French space agency, to act as project manager. Each partner committed funds to Ariane knowing that it would receive a rate of return—80 percent—on its investment for the rocket’s development. This means domestic firms in each partner nation received Ariane 1 contracts totaling 80 percent of the amount invested in development by their national governments. The Ariane framework allowed for efficient project management, giving one entity authority to ensure the effort was on budget and hitting technical milestones.

The International Space Station and Artemis program, NASA’s initiative to return humans to the Moon, approach collaboration differently than Ariane. For these programs, international partners commit to providing a component to be integrated into a larger system. As an Artemis partner, ESA will provide modules for the Orion spacecraft and Lunar Gateway, a planned station orbiting the Moon. In return, NASA will fly European payloads and astronauts to the Moon on Artemis missions. This approach—effectively a barter agreement­—does not empower one entity with the proper tools to fully manage the overall project budget and risk.

Finally, it’s worth noting that structuring future international space initiatives like the Ariane project would come with a political cost, as it would mean sharing decisionmaking and control. No one nation holds all the cards and can make decisions unilaterally. But this is not a unique concept. During the same week as the Ariane 6’s expected debut, U.S. and allied leaders are gathering in Washington, D.C., to recognize the 75th anniversary of NATO, whose decisions are all made by consensus. The durability of the NATO alliance demonstrates the value of cooperation and a structure in which no one nation has a veto or final say.

It’s somewhat astonishing that postwar European leaders, many of whom fought on different sides of World War II, were able to see and realize a vision of greater European integration broadly but specifically on space systems. The upcoming maiden flight of Europe’s newest rocket is a testament to the success of that vision and will. The framework for Ariane is a model U.S. and allied leaders should consider for doing big things together in space. What is needed today—what was provided by senior European leaders during the critical years before the creation of the Ariane project—is a relentless political will in allied countries to remove barriers and build a framework to make greater space collaboration succeed.

Clayton Swope is the deputy director of the Aerospace Security Project and a senior fellow in the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Stephanie Songer is a former intern in the Aerospace Security Project at CSIS.

What Can We Learn from Ariane for Future Space Partnerships? (2024)

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