Arianespace: Cheaper by the Dozen

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European launch services provider Arianespace says it delivers cargo to the International Space Station (ISS) for less than NASA is currently paying Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) and Orbital Sciences Corp. under a pair of Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contracts worth a combined $3.5 billion.

Clay Mowry, president of Arianespace's U.S. division, says the European Ariane 5 heavy-lift rocket and Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) -- both of which are built by Airbus Defence and Space -- have launched more than 24,000 kg of food, supplies, fuel and water to the ISS with four ATV missions at a cost of roughly $460 million each, or $76,500 per kilogram.

“That’s more cargo than SpaceX’s entire 12-flight resupply contract with NASA,” Mowry said. “We would be happy to take over their contract and lower the price per kilogram for delivering cargo to the ISS.”

Mowry was responding to a Feb. 20 comment by SpaceX founder, CEO and Chief Designer Elon Musk, who said Arianespace would go bankrupt if it had the SpaceX CRS contract. Musk's comment was aimed at criticism from Arianespace Chairman and CEO Stephane Israel and other European space-industry officials that SpaceX charges considerably more to its government customers than the $56.6 million it advertises for commercial missions.

Hawthorne, Calif.-based SpaceX is preparing to launch the third of its 12 CRS missions to the space station on March 16 using its Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon cargo capsule. Under the terms of the its $1.6 billion NASA resupply contract, the company is on the hook to deliver a total 20,000 kg of cargo and supplies to ISS by Dec. 31, 2015 at a cost to NASA of about $80,000 per kilogram. To date, SpaceX has conducted two CRS missions and one qualification flight to the ISS for a total cargo delivery of 1,435 kg.

Orbital's $1.9 billion CRS contract stipulates 20,000 kg delivered to the space station using eight launches of the company's new Antares rocket and Cygnus cargo capsule for a cost to NASA of $95,000 per kilogram. The Dulles, Va.-based company has flown two missions to the station, including a qualification flight and the first of its eight CRS missions, to deliver a total of 2,000 kg to ISS.

However, unlike ATV and Cygnus, the recoverable Dragon cargo vessel has the unique ability to return cargo and experiments to Earth. The company's first two CRS missions, launched in October 2012 and March 2013, returned a combined 1,969 kg of cargo mass from the orbiting outpost, a service ATV and Cygnus cargo vehicles cannot provide.

Mowry notes that while ATV does not return cargo to Earth, unlike Dragon and Cygnus, it is capable of autonomous rendezvous and docking with the space station, and is also powerful enough to boost its orbit.

Arianespace is preparting to launch a fifth and final ATV mission to the ISS this spring.

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