SpaceX Starship Not a Game-Changer or Competitor: ESA Chief

The maiden flight of Europe’s new Ariane 6 heavy-lift launcher is expected on July 9, marking a significant milestone after four years of delays. Meanwhile, Europe has had to rely on U.S. competitor SpaceX for launching its scientific and Galileo satellites due to a lack of domestic launchers.

Toni Tolker-Nielsen, ESA director of space transportation, elaborates on the challenges facing the European Space Agency (ESA) for the early exploitation of Ariane 6 and the strategy for the European space transportation system through the 2030s, in an interview with SpaceNews.

Tolker-Nielsen emphasized the importance of Ariane 6 for European access to space, describing it as a “sovereign launcher.” He acknowledged that the 13 ESA states involved have agreed on funding for an inaugural test flight and 14 operational missions. However, ensuring operational income over three years with nine launches per year remains a challenge.

“We’re analyzing the business plan for launcher batch FM16 to 42, looking at all the launch service contracts and costs. We’ll need between 290 million euros and 340 million euros per year,” he said. The final amount will be determined after auditing industry and supplier costs and income from contracts signed by Arianespace.

Tolker-Nielsen addressed the potential impact of SpaceX’s Starship on the market, asserting that it won’t be a game-changer for Ariane 6. “Honestly, I don’t think Starship will be a game-changer or a real competitor. This huge launcher is designed to fly people to the moon and Mars. Ariane 6 is perfect for the job if you need to launch a four- or five-ton satellite,” he explained.

Looking ahead, Tolker-Nielsen envisioned a future space transportation logistics system with recurrent and reusable launchers flying to a hub. “Starship will probably have a big role in carrying heavy cargo to this space logistics hub, like a container ship getting to a terminal,” he noted. Europe is already preparing for this vision with the development of space cargo, in-orbit refueling, in-space docking systems, and lunar traffic using Ariane 6.

Addressing comments from Elon Musk on the necessity of reusable launchers, Tolker-Nielsen explained Europe’s current stance. “We made the choice of not being reusable with Ariane 6 exactly because of this argument. Our launch needs are so low that it wouldn’t make sense economically. But when we’ll launch frequently in the future, we’ll need reusability for economic reasons,” he stated.

One has to wonder if it is worth the cost for a space program if you’re only doing a handful of launches. It would be more prudent to outsource to SpaceX, as an example. But for European space independence, the cost seems worth it, despite the massive investment.

Back in 2022, the ESA announced it plans to build its own low-Earth orbit satellite internet system, similar to Starlink.

Tolker-Nielsen highlighted that sustainability will drive the future need for reusable technologies. Europe is already developing Themis, a reusable main stage demonstrator, and the Prometheus engine. Additionally, Maia, a small but reusable launcher supported by France, is expected to utilize the Prometheus engine and technologies from Themis.