How close has SpaceX come to failure

Ariane 6: new rocket, old problems

In the end, »Puff« did it - and still everyone was happy: The Starship, the new prototype from the US rocket forge SpaceX, exploded in a ball of fire in December. The shiny silver monster had previously climbed to a height of about twelve kilometers and fell back to earth in a controlled manner. Just above the ground it braked, straightened up and tried to land again - dancing on the exhaust jet. Ultimately, there was no strength for it, the Starship crashed the last few meters onto the landing field without braking. The reactions were nevertheless euphoric: »Great test«, announced SpaceX towards the end of the live broadcast, »Congratulations to the Starship team!«

Test, fail, learn. And try again. It's the way SpaceX develops its missiles. In this way, a vehicle is created in front of the public that could soon make cheap flights to the moon and even Mars possible, at least that is the promise. Nobody knows if this will really work, but it's worth a try. Setbacks included.

This article is included in Spectrum - The Week, 01/2021

Bureaucratic, sluggish, risk averse

In Europe, on the other hand, nothing was done in December, neither controlled nor uncontrolled. Europe's new rocket, the Ariane 6, should have taken off on its maiden flight around Christmas. But instead of a proud start in the sky over French Guiana, Europe's space officials only saw a new bill in December, for an additional 231 million euros. In addition: a new start date. Now it should start in the second quarter of 2022. At the earliest.

Ariane 6, once Europe's beacon of hope, has become a problem. It stands for space travel - bureaucratic, sluggish, risk averse - that is dominated by political decisions and not by competition or innovation. This has consequences: while SpaceX and other private companies are setting the pace and turning the industry upside down, Europe is in danger of falling behind. Only a few start-ups could change that.

Everything looked so beautiful - on paper: In 2014, the ESA Council of Ministers decided to commission the development and construction of a new rocket. The previous workhorse of the European Space Agency, Ariane 5, was getting on in years. Above all, however, it had become too big for the constantly shrinking satellites.

The successor should be more flexible, smaller and cheaper. However, the ministers shied away from major technical innovations; fundamental changes were only planned for production. This should be largely automated, with new materials and based on automotive engineering. This should reduce construction costs by 40 percent compared to the previous model.