It is two years since Europe's "super-rocket", the Ariane 5-ECA, exploded minutes into its maiden voyage.
Jean-Yves Le Gall, chief executive of Arianespace, the company that markets and operates Europe's launchers, explains what went wrong, and why January's qualification flight is so critical.
Jean-Yves Le Gall is confident Arianespace can adapt to an unsettled market
Can you explain the ECA's significance?
The ECA has roughly almost twice the performance of the Ariane 5-Generic. When we fly the generic, we launch one spacecraft. With the ECA, we will be able to launch, simultaneously, two spacecraft.
The global cost of the ECA is not much more than the global cost of the Ariane 5-Generic, and so launching with the ECA is much more affordable than launching with the Ariane 5-Generic - which is of course very interesting for our customers.
We think this launch vehicle is going to revolutionise the launch services in the world because it will bring to our customers double-launch affordability, and because of the performance of this launch vehicle, it will also bring single-launch flexibility.
What technical challenges have you had to overcome?
The first was to correct the failure which created the loss of the 2002 mission. This was a problem in an extension of the cryogenic engine of the central stage, and we clearly understood what happened.
We had a problem of buckling on the nozzle extension, and we took all corrective actions in order to change the design of the nozzle extension.
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We fully tested the new design and it is clear this new design will work perfectly.
The second challenge was a full review of the launch vehicle... of all the parts of the launch vehicle in order to ensure that everything was being cross-checked; everything has been fully tested, and everything will be successful.
How hard has it been to win back confidence from customers after 2002?
I would say that we never lost the confidence of the customers because, in fact, we had the basic version of Ariane 5, the so-called Generic, which works perfectly.
Just after the failure of the Ariane 5-ECA, we decided to order more of the Ariane 5-Generic... which is the guarantee for our customers that their satellites will be launched successfully.
What other assurances are there for them?
When a customer signs to launch a spacecraft, it has already invested a lot of money - several 100s of millions of dollars - and so the time of the launch is very critical.
This is why we created what we called the Launch Services Alliance, which is an alliance between Sea Launch, a subsidiary of the Boeing company in the US, and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries (MHI) in Japan, in order to provide our customers with a schedule assurance.
It means that when a customer signs a contract with the European Space Agency (Esa), MHI, Sea Launch, or Arianespace, and there is something wrong by the time of the launch, there is a possibility to swap from one launch vehicle to another one.
How important is it that Arianespace has success with taxpayers' money at stake?
When it is taxpayers' money, we are, I would say, no more committed than for our commercial customers because I think that our commitment is extreme in both cases.
It is a great honour for us to have the European taxpayers paying for the development of the Ariane 5 and this is clear proof that there is no place for mistakes.
How has Arianespace responded to the changes in the global launch market?
During the last year because of very big changes in this market, we have a keyword in the company which is "adaptation".
We have to adapt to the new needs of our customers. This is why we decided to make the Ariane 5-ECA our workhorse for the future because this launch vehicle will bring both the single-launch flexibility and the double-launch affordability.
Ariane 5-ECA is meant to be Europe's workhorse
We have also schedule assurance with the launch services agreement and the international cooperation.
We are also committed to providing our customers with the "Royal Family" of launch vehicles capable of any mass to any orbit at any time.
This is why we implemented a cooperation with the Russians for the Soyuz launch vehicles which is a reality today through our subsidiary Starsem, organising launches from Baikonur with the Soyuz launch vehicle.
At the same time, in close connection with Esa, we decided to invest in French Guiana and build a launch pad there, not far from the Ariane launch pad, in order to have a full family of launch vehicles in French Guiana.
We will have also the light launch vehicle, Vega, which is under development by Esa, and which will make its inaugural flight in early 2008.
Where do you see demand coming from in the next five to 10 years?
I am very cautious about predictions, because in general, when someone gives me a prediction for the next five years, I request the same prediction which has been made five years ago.
Today we have a system which can work with a very limited number of contracts awarded every year. We can live with six contracts a year.
Last year we signed eight contracts; this year we have already signed seven and the year is not over. So we are now in quite a robust position.
The satellite launch market is going through a tough period
But what is clear for me is the need for telecommunications will continue to increase by an average of 7% a year. Seven per cent a year means you need twice more capability every 10 years.
This growth will continue because two years ago, everybody had cell phones with just voice. Now more and more people have a cell phone with pictures.
In two or three years from now, it is clear that we will need more and more capability to send a lot of data from everywhere in the world and so we'll have an increased need for in-orbit capability.
Who are your main competitors?
Today we don't have so many competitors because some companies decided to come out of the market.
Our main competitor is ILS (International Launch Services), which is a joint venture between Lockheed Martin in the US and the Khrunichev Space Center in Russia, and the ILS today is marketing mainly the Proton launch vehicle which is developed, built, processed and launched in Russia.
ILS is also marketing the Atlas series which are made in the US and launched from Florida, but today the Atlas series is completely out of the market. ILS today sells just the Proton.
The other competitor is Sea Launch. The Boeing Company decided to put Delta IV which is made by Boeing out of the commercial market.
They attack the commercial market with Sea Launch which has a very limited capability and which doesn't have quite as big an order book.
I think we are the only global commercial launch company with customers everywhere worldwide with a network of agreements everywhere worldwide.
How is the demand for commercial satellites changing?
There is obviously a move from companies which made in the past telecommunications, to companies which will make in the future direct TV, HDTV (high-definition TV) and broadband.
The key point for the taking off of HDTV in Europe is the decrease in price of the flat screens because once you experience the flat screen with a DVD, when you switch back to the classical TV, everyone considers the image quality to be very poor.
In the US this is critical, but in Europe it is less of a problem with the PAL signal. In the US with the NTSC, when you switch back from DVDs, the image quality is very poor.
What about wi-fi?
On plane travel, wi-fi and cell phones will develop. Today it is difficult to say it will be a successful development.
When you look at people on planes, they do not work a lot and I am not sure that people will connect on wi-fi to work on the plane; and today there are phones on planes nobody uses.
As a frequent flyer, I also have an issue of privacy, so I don't know if this is a real market.
How important is the military sector to the business?
In Europe, the military sector is not so huge as in the US but it is very important for us because we are a company that is helped by the European taxpayers.
So it seems to me, obviously, that we must be at the service of the military in Europe.
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Scientific exploration is also very important and we are very proud to have been key players in the launch of scientific missions which have been very successful for Europe.
We launched [Rosetta comet chaser], which is now en route to a comet and we will continue to launch scientific spacecraft in the coming years. We will launch next year the Venus Express.
What kind of technical challenges will face the launcher industry in the coming years?
I think the most important challenge we have in front of us is to increase the reliability of our launch systems, launching regularly, and new technical improvements.
But in parallel, it is clear that the European industries must develop technology programmes in order to prepare launch vehicles for the future.
And so the European Space Agency decided to develop the Future Launcher Preparatory Programme, to develop vehicles for 20 or 30 years from now.
But today we are really just exploring the technologies.