Space Travel: The Last Ariane 5 Was More Than a Satellite Truck – Economy
Reinhard Hildebrandt thinks back fondly, but also wistfully: when the engineer at the European starting point in Kourou/French Guyana does one more Arianerocket on its journey, then he went to the ramp early on the day of launch. “It was the very last moment to say goodbye to the rocket with a ‘handshake’,” says the 67-year-old. It was “an unforgettable mood” at dawn, he felt so small as a person next to it.
Hildebrandt felt this humility for more than 35 years, during which time he was on the start team in Kourou, for many years as its manager. And if the 117th and last senior grade of the two-stage Ariane 5 will be loaded onto the ship bound for Kourou this Wednesday in Bremen, then Hildebrandt should feel just as much melancholy. With the start in spring, the era of Ariane 5 over. He still talks enthusiastically about Arianerockets and space travel, even if he has already been retired for two years. Since the eighth flight of the Ariane 1 he was there – that was in 1984. Since then he has around 240 starts of the various Ariane-models witnessed, he knows every detail.
But above all, he remembered the “European character”: “This team spirit in the Ariane-Family fascinated from the very first day at work,” he says. “Germans and French often worked together for many hours a day, it was more than a surrogate family.” Ever since the Americans first landed on the moon in 1969, he has been enthusiastic about space, has applied as an astronaut in the 1980s and came in 62nd out of 1700 applicants. Now he is happy about his lifelong “dream job” in the Arianeteam, even if he mostly lived in Kourou apart from his, as he says, “understanding” wife and two children (who now also work in the space industry).
As a precursor organization to the space agency, the goal was independent access to space for Europe Esa The first in the early 1970s Ariane-rocket commissioned. The multinational project for a Europa rocket had previously failed due to technical and financial problems. When Hildebrandt was hired by Ariane, the company was still called MBB-Erno. “In my career, the company has changed names more than ten times,” he says. The manufacturer has been called Ariane Group since 2015 and is a subsidiary of the Airbus and Safran groups. Rocket stages and engines are built at several locations in France and Germany.
In retrospect, Hildebrandt is fascinated by the fact that the Ariane 5 not only as trucks for television, earth observation or Galileosatellites, but could also launch various science missions like the Mercury probe Bepi Colombo 2018, that James Webb Telescope 2021 or the comet probe Rosette 2004. Hildebrandt and his colleagues mounted them on the Ariane 5.
Most of the time, says Hildebrandt, everything went well at the start, but not always. Things got particularly dramatic for the engineer on June 4, 1996: the first Ariane 5 went off course about 30 seconds after takeoff due to a software error and self-destructed. “I saw the explosion from a very close vantage point, the debris threatened to rain down on us,” he recalls. “There were few Ariane-Crashes, but then tears flow, even with seasoned men,” he says. Everyone went shocked to troubleshoot the Ariane 4 then continued to fly until 2003, especially since there was another one Ariane 5 exploded in 2002 due to an engine problem. Aside from an incident in 2018 where the rocket went into the wrong orbit, nothing happened after that. Reliability rate according to the Ariane Group: around 98 percent. Nevertheless, there is never routine at the starting point, says Hildebrandt. “The flight program and the orbits that are flown are different every time.” Especially since the rocket is always being further developed. Of the Ariane 5 there have been five versions of which Ariane 4 even six.
So now the Ariane 6. The promise for the new carrier rocket: 40 to 50 percent lower costs, more flexible flights thanks to a re-ignitable engine and two model versions. This could increase the price of the European rocket Falcon 9 of US competitor Space-X. However, the development also cost around four billion euros, mainly tax money. The Ariane Group has contributed 400 million euros. After years of delays, engine tests in Lampoldshausen and tests at the launch pad in Kourou, it is scheduled to take off for the first time at the end of 2023.
The industry is urgently waiting for this, because after the failure of the Soyuzmissile because of the Russia boycott, there is a shortage rather than an oversupply of launchers. And for them Ariane 6 there are already many orders: In addition to 18 flights for the Kuiper-Internet satellites from the Amazon group, there are a dozen more orders on the booking list. The Ariane Group wants to stop the production of the Ariane 6 also boot up, but not immediately. “As soon as all tests are completed, we want to build nine launchers per year,” says Finance and Germany boss Pierre Godart. Then it should go successively to twelve rockets Ariane 5 only half was possible annually.
Although the Ariane 6 but it hasn’t even flown yet, the engineers are already working on the further development of the rocket. For example, there is the reusable and cheaper methane engine Prometheus, for which Esa made 200 million euros available. The Ariane Group also wants to use this to test the vertical landing of rocket stages. A prerequisite for using them several times, as known from Space-X. The tests are planned for 2024 in Kiruna/Sweden, says Godart. Furthermore, the rocket is to become more powerful in order to be able to take more satellites with it. The aim is to “introduce this around the year 2025”. In September, the Ariane Group also launched a space transporter called Susie presented. He should be able to transport either astronauts or cargo into space. The development would cost a lot of money, and if the ESA countries agree, then “German locations will of course also be involved,” says Godart.
For Hildebrandt, a big dream could come true: “I see a chance that the Ariane 6 one day will also carry astronauts into space.” He also expects that the Ariane Group will one day use the rocket stages again Ariane according to company plans, also during transport. A hybrid powered sailing freighter named Canopee will bring the modules of the rocket from Europe to Kourou.
Despite all the innovation, engineer Hildebrandt is convinced that a tradition will remain in Kourou after successful rocket launches: “A large bottle of champagne is always opened and we toast to success together”. Also the Ariane 6 he doesn’t want to miss it. “I’ll do everything I can to be in Kourou for the first start, I’ll treat myself to that.”