Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Ariane Explosion Blows Up More Than a New Rocket

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Ariane Explosion Blows Up More Than a New Rocket

Article excerpt

The cheering in the stands had already begun when the Ariane 5 rocket veered off course and was intentionally exploded above the jungles of French Guiana some 40 seconds after its maiden launch.

Explosions, even on test launches, make a difference in the fiercely competitive world of satellite launchers. The defective O-ring that destroyed the Challenger space shuttle in 1986 opened the door to the European consortium Arianespace to become the world's No. 1 commercial satellite launcher.

Arianespace now claims about half of a $3 billion world space-launch market, but faces tough competition from American defense giants Lockheed-Martin and McDonnell Douglas, as well as Russian and Chinese rivals.

The Ariane 5 was to have been the "crowning achievement" of the European space effort - the rocket that could not fail, or rather, must not fail, for Europe to maintain its lead.

The result of an $8 billion development effort by 12 European nations, the Ariane 5 is designed to carry two 3-ton communications satellites into high orbit. Lockheed Martin and McDonnell Douglas are at least two years away from comparable launchers, the Atlas 2AS and the Delta 3, but they promise launch costs about 20 percent below those of the Ariane 5.

Ariane 5 was counting on its head start and its reliability - both of which were compromised by this week's aborted launch - for its competitive edge.

It isn't unusual for satellite launchers to blow up on their first few tries. Lockheed's Atlas rocket failed on seven of its first 10 launches. McDonnell's Delta rocket failed on its first launch, as did Lockheed's Titan 3. More recently, the Virginia-based Orbital Sciences Corp. lost the first two of its new Pegasus XL rockets, before succeeding on the third test flight in March.

"You can't judge a rocket that is going to fly 100 flights over 20 years on the basis of one experimental flight," says Stephane Chenard, space analyst with EuroConsult, a Paris consulting firm. …

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