As Europe's iconic rocket turns 40, the ESA prepares for a new era

Europe’s commercial satellite launcher prepares for the new era of space travel.

European Space Agency 

When the Ariane 1 rocket successfully launched from Europe’s Spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana, on December 24, 1979, it proved that the third time was the charm for the new satellite launcher.

The launch was originally scheduled for December 15 when an engine malfunction before liftoff postponed the historic moment to December 23, but bad weather unexpectedly delayed it one more day. Tuesday marked the 40th anniversary of the launch.

As the first Ariane rocket lifted off into lower-Earth orbit, “there were cries of joy from spectators as the Ariane rose in the clear sky above Guiana,” an AFP report stated at the time.

The control room celebrates the launch of Ariane 1.


At the time it launched, Ariane had all the odds stacked against it: Europe had just suffered a major loss with the failure of the Europa satellite launcher, which was part of the now disbanded European Launcher Development Organization, after it was called off in the 1960’s.

Today, the Ariane rocket family has been operating for 40 years, launching satellites into space while securing a place for Europe in the growing independent market for space travel.

As the European Space Agency (ESA) prepares to launch a new module, Ariane 6, in the year 2020, it is also preparing for a new era of the privatization of space.

The Ariane satellite launchers were the primary objective of ESA and its 22 member states back in 1975. At the time, their main competitor was the United States and its Space Shuttle Program, while China, India and Japan were also expected to increase their space milage. However, ESA wanted to establish a spaceport and guarantee independent access to space so that it could develop its own space program.

Ariane 1 was the first rocket developed to transport commercial satellites to geostationary orbit, around 22,236 miles above Earth’s Equator.

Between 1979 and 1989, Ariane 1, 2 and 3 launched a total of 38 satellites into orbit through 28 liftoffs, according to a statement by ESA. Ariane 4, on the other hand, launched 113 times, and Ariane 5 is now able to carry 10,865 kilograms onboard as opposed to the initial load of 1,850 kilograms of the first generation of Ariane rockets.

However, Ariane 5 did suffer a slight mishap on June 4, 1996 when the heavy-lift launch vehicle exploded less than a minute after liftoff.

A new era for Ariane

ESA is currently preparing for Ariane 6 despite reports of a decrease in public sector contracts for the launch vehicle. In January, Arianespace had announced a halt to production of the Ariane 6 model, saying that it needed European government agencies to commit to at least four more contracts between the years 2020 to 2023, according to Space News. However, later in April, ESA announced that they will move forward with the production of Ariane 6 despite not having enough contracts, and that the agency would find ways to work around it.

Forty years ago, the Ariane rockets had a lot less competition blasting off into space. However, increased commercialization of space in the past few years and a new vision for privatized space travel is sure to crowd ESA’s independent access to space.

Arianespace is trying to increase the efficiency of its rockets in order to hold up against SpaceX with its reusable launch vehicles. Ariane 6 is expected to have more effective manufacturing costs, and a more efficient, rechargeable engine.

However, whether or not Europe’s ambitious 40-year-old project can survive under an increasingly competitive market in space is still unclear.